DALLAS – Jamie Benn has become one of those circle-your-calendar players. As in, it’s circled every time he comes to town. That’s what happens when you win a scoring title, like the Dallas Stars captain did last season.
It’s been more of the same this year for the 26-year-old winger, who entered the weekend third in the NHL in points (27) behind only Patrick Kane and teammate Tyler Seguin, and second to Kane in goals (12). The biggest difference is that a Dallas team that missed the playoffs last season hit the quarter pole at 16-4 and boasting the NHL’s best record.
“I don’t make much out of it,” Benn said about the focus going to him and Seguin. “It’s all about the Dallas Stars in here. We focus on the details of the game, what we have to do to win that game that night. Last year, teams said about us that we were all offense and no defense and that’s not we want. We want to be a good two-way team, good in our zone and we’ve got two good goalies.”
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Benn is a 2007 fifth-round pick from Kelowna of the Western League the Stars hit the jackpot on. He’s on the way to his sixth 20-goal season, a huge followup to last year’s career-high totals of 35 goals and 87 points.
“His all-around game has been good and he always sees the other team’s best defenders,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “On special teams when you’re not able to defend as well, he’s done a real good job. He knows he has to play the game the right way. He’s a big, physical player. He’s had some goals where his net-front presence is as good as anybody in the league.”
The Stars were second in the league in scoring last year so the renewal of their big offensive numbers was pretty much expected. Their growth has come defensively, and especially in goal with improved play from Kari Lehtonen and the acquisition of Antti Niemi.
After finishing 26th in goals against and 29th in save percentage last season, the Stars entered Sautrday 16th in GAA (2.50) and 11th in save percentage (.917). The additions of Niemi and Chicago Cup winners Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya has made a clear difference.
“We brought in players who’ve won a Cup, have a lot of experience,” Benn said. “We can learn a lot from there. They’ve probably been through every situation possible, the ups and downs.”
Benn is pretty close to the vest with reporters but it’s hardly a shut-down-the-media act. What you see is what you get.
“Hey, he’s a low-key guy with me too,” cracked Ruff. “He gets that little smile which means he’s either got something for me or is going to present something for me. He’s good inside the room. The personality you saw is how he is. He’s not a rah-rah but the players hear him. And he goes on the ice and does it first. He does it in a hard way and the guys follow.”
Stars veteran Jason Spezza, who played with a pretty good captain in Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson, had similar praise.
“He’s got a calm demeanor but really brings it on the ice,” Spezza said. “He’s not too stubborn to ask opinions of guys. He’s got a lot of traits a great captain should have. He commands respect in the dressing room and it’s the type of person he is, how he plays the game and how he approaches everybody. He takes time for guys and you really see him getting better at the role.”
What kind of captain would Benn describe himself as?
“A quiet one,” he said with a smile.
Asked how much that changes when the media exits the dressing room, he said simply, “That’s between me and the guys. Let’s just say when you guys aren’t in here, I’m a little more vocal.”
Hamonic needs to go home
The Islanders suddenly have a dilemma far more important than how to convince more people to show up for games in Brooklyn. Word leaked out last week that 25-year-old defenseman Travis Hamonic, averaging a team-high 23½ minutes per game, has requested a trade to be closer to his Manitoba home for unspecified personal reasons.
Hamonic is signed through 2020 at a very reasonable $3.8 million, so the Islanders are in a tough spot getting value for him. Winnipeg has an expiring contract in Dustin Byfuglien but he’d have to sign an extension on Long Island first. And Edmonton, of course, could always use more defensemen. It bears watching to see if this one happens at the deadline or needs to wait until after the season.
Smoke, meet fire
There’s been multiple reports in the last few daysabout some sort of three-way trade involving the Islanders, and it was pretty interesting to see all the activity in First Niagara Center last week as the Hamonic situation started to evolve.
We’re more than three months away from the Feb. 29 trade deadline but antennas were up downtown during the Sabres’ game against Dallas Tuesday. That’s because Anaheim General Manager Bob Murray, Ducks player personnel director Rick Patterson, Arizona GM Don Maloney and Winnipeg director of pro scouting Mark Dobson were all on hand.
It’s not the first time the Anaheim contingent or Dobson have been visitors this season. And Dobson, it should be noted, was in town several times last year before the Evander Kane trade was consummated.
It was pretty widely known the Sabres were interested in Kane when he came on the market and one current apple of GM Tim Murray’s eye is believed to be left-handed Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler. Stay tuned.
Gospel of Hitch
A pregame chat with Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is always fun and he didn’t disappoint on Thursday in St. Louis, waxing poetic about his team, about the three-on-three format for the All-Star Game and about how Jack Eichel looked completely prepared to break into the NHL at age 18.
Hitchcock was effusive in his praise of Eichel’s skill and high-tempo style of play.
“It’s typical of where this league’s at that these young players come in and are more than ready,” Hitchcock said. “They’re physically mature. The kids nowadays learn about fitness at like age 12 and when you see kids that come into the league at 18 and 19, they’re physically ready. Before, there were a lot of guys mentally that could play at those ages but physically they got worn down.
“You see now Jack is an example, Connor McDavid is an example of how they’re physically ready. They understand the stuff that used to take years to teach. They’ve got an advance on it and to me, that’s why they’re up to speed so quickly.”
No tank brigades
Super agent Scott Boras had plenty of interesting words on tanking at baseball’s general managers meetings that could easily apply to hockey.
“Scouting and development should not be measured by your ability to tank for four years because it is a valued move to go get a top 1 or 2 or 3 pick by making sure your major league team is out of the hunt,” Boras told reporters earlier this month in Boca Raton, Fla. “For the teams trying to be competitive every year, they’re being penalized. They’re not benefiting from the system. The system is to be noncompetitive for 40 percent of a decade. We need systems that reward teams for winning.”
Boras doesn’t believe a team finishing last two years in a row should be allowed to have consecutive No. 1 picks like the Tampa Bay Rays did in 2007-08, the Washington Nationals did in 2009-10 (when the picks were Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) and the Houston Astros did from 2012-14.
In hockey, of course, the Sabres have finished last two straight years and drafted No. 2 only because there was a lottery. Meanwhile, Edmonton got the No. 1 pick from 2010-12, again in June with McDavid and entered the weekend last overall again in the wake of McDavid’s broken clavicle.
Said Boras: “There should be a penalty for performing badly.”
• Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk after surviving to win Thursday’s game in the shootout: “They weren’t the old Buffalo Sabres. They’re a different team. They’re a much better team.”
• Columbus captain Nick Foligno, speaking to the Ottawa Citizen on the criticism he’s earned from new coach John Tortorella: “I love how he empowers guys. When he comes at you, it’s really black and white. He has done it to all of us. The guys want to go out there and do it. Probably the hardest part in this game is to motivate each and every guy differently and he’s done that.”
• HBO’s “Real Sports” debuts a segment profiling NBCSN play-by-play man Mike Emrick Tuesday at 10 p.m. Emrick, 69, does the interview with Andrea Kremer. Pretty much everyone in the game calls Emrick “Doc” because he has a Ph.D in communications from Bowling Green, and he is about the most unassuming national broadcaster you would ever meet. There’s zero celebrity to him. And just get him talking about his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates.
• The AHL announced Friday that its All-Star Game Feb. 1 in Syracuse will be much like the NHL’s three-on-three format in Nashville. There will be four divisional teams playing a round-robin, featuring six games of nine minutes each. The first half of each game will be played at four-on-four, the second half at three-on-three. The two teams with the best records will meet for the title – six minutes of three-on-three.