The Emergence of Jordie Benn

(Photo Courtesy of Bridget Samuels)

(Photo Courtesy of Bridget Samuels)

During the 2009-2010 season, a 20 year-old rookie named Jamie Benn broke into the league with the Dallas Stars. This 5th round draft pick put up a very impressive 41 points in his debut season and looked to be a very significant future piece for the Stars organization moving forward.

That same year, Jamie’s brother broke into a league as well. The second-year pro played top defensive pair minutes and helped lead his team to a championship birth, eventually losing a hard-fought series in the finals. You are now thinking, I don’t remember seeing a Benn on the Philadelphia Flyers during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals back in 2010! Well, he wasn’t exactly on the ice during that Stanley Cup Finals run. He wasn’t in the press box either. In fact, you actually couldn’t even find him on an NHL roster at this time. So where was this Benn brother during the 2010 playoffs?

The Central Hockey league is a minor professional hockey league that currently has nine teams spread out across the central region of the United States. It is often considered the lowest level of professional hockey. It is technically three tiers below the NHL in the hierarchy of pro hockey leagues. CHL players travel often, by bus, and make meager salaries. In essence, the CHL is effectively a stop gap for those wanting to prolong their hockey careers after college or juniors for a few years before having to find a job outside of hockey. To paint a picture of the pro structure, the U.S. professional hockey ladder starts at the Central Hockey League (CHL), up to the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League), to the American Hockey League (AHL), and finally to the top league in the world, the National Hockey League (NHL). As you could imagine, climbing the ladder from the bottom to the top is a very rare accomplishment.

Now that you understand the utterly important structure of U.S. professional hockey, we can return to our question about this “other” Benn.

Jamie’s elder brother, Jordie Benn, was actually playing for the Allen Americans of the CHL during this year. That’s right, not the NHL. The CHL! He was instrumental in the American’s trip to the CHL final that year, but to say he had a real future in pro hockey would have been quite a stretch at this time. Instead, it was more of a chance for two brothers to play hockey in a state very unfamiliar to them, at two very different levels of hockey.

Let’s rewind a few years before we go any further. Jordie Benn, the much less coveted, if coveted at all, brother spent four years playing junior hockey in the BCHL for two of his hometown teams. He put up some impressive numbers for a defenseman during those years, but was never able to make the jump to Major Junior, the more popular route for NHL players. He eventually was able to stay in Victoria and make his professional hockey debut in 2008-2009 with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL before making his move to Allen, Texas.

After his noted trip to the finals with the Allen Americans, Jordie signed a contract to make the jump to the Texas Stars of the AHL. Playing in 60 games, the defenseman had a total of 12 points and while that is a respectable number, it is nothing to get excited about.

Before the 2011-2012 season, Jordie signed a one-year NHL contract with the Dallas Stars. Remaining in the AHL, he appeared in 62 games in his second season with Texas and really started to make some strides in his game. He led all Stars’ defenseman in scoring that year, finishing with 32 points. He also made his NHL debut during this professional breakout year, and picked up two assists in just three games played. The future started to look somewhat bright for the late bloomer.

In July of 2012, the Stars shocked much of the fan base, and signed the elder Benn to a three-year, one-way contract; pretty much ensuring that Benn would play with the big club for the next three seasons. This seemed like a very questionable contract for a guy with only three games of NHL experience who was playing in the CHL just two seasons ago.

Jordie Benn’s 2012-2013 campaign came with some hiccups as he transitioned to the speed of the NHL game. Stepping in as the seventh NHL defenseman, he surprisingly became a whipping boy for much of the frustrated fan base, often taking heat for the relatively weak defensive group. Critics, and he had a lot of them, pointed to his free ride to the NHL during times of weakness, attributing his quick climb up the professional hockey ladder to the accolades of his younger brother. Many fans didn’t see the need to waste a spot on a guy who was a bubble NHL player at best, especially with a blue line desperate for help.

To fortify the doubts of many, the Stars’ bona fide seventh defenseman looked uncomfortable during his limited time on the ice with Dallas. He seemed lost in the defensive zone often and created a great amount of uneasiness for those watching when he possessed the puck. Yes, he chipped in for six points in just 27 games, but his small contribution in the offensive zone didn’t seem to override his below average play behind his own blue line.

While he did make mistakes at some key moments, much of the heat was unwarranted. Most rookie defenseman cannot just step into the NHL and have an immediate positive impact, even those with the name “Benn” on the back of their jerseys. But his modest point total was nothing to scoff at. He posted positive possession numbers in his limited minutes. He proved that he had the ability to be a contributing, puck-moving defenseman with above average wheels and the capability to make that important first pass out of the defensive zone. There were definitely some question marks and weaknesses to his game, but not enough to justify the fan’s vast amount of criticism of the rookie defenseman.

During the beginning of this past season, Jordie spent a handful of games in the press box and it appeared he wasn’t going to be given much of a chance to earn big minutes with the team. However, as the season progressed, Jordie’s solid play started to earn him more minutes from the Stars’ coaching staff. The more minutes he got night in and night out, the more comfortable he became. His game started to evolve in front of our eyes. His transition game improved. His breakout passes out of the zone were crisp. He seemed to get a little quicker as each game moved on, skating pucks out of the zone and playing tight defensively. By no means is Benn a big hitter, but his solid frame at 6’2, 200 pounds allowed him to finish checks and lay the occasional momentum shifting, body-belting blow that we all have grown to love.

In a matter of months, Benn transitioned from a frequent visitor of the American Airlines Center’s press box, to a top four defenseman on a playoff team. Benn averaged a little more than 19 minutes of ice time a night, good for fourth among Stars defenseman. In addition, the second-year defenseman had a very solid 20 points (3 goals & 17 assists) and led the team in plus/minus with a +16.

Benn, again, posted positive possession numbers with a Corsi of 50.3%. At even strength, he posted a Goals For Percentage of 56.3%, which translates to his being on the ice for 49 of the Stars goals and only 38 goals against (a +11 goal differential). Lindy Ruff clearly was not afraid to start the defenseman anywhere on the ice, as his Zone Start Percentage was nearly identical for all three zones.

Based on both basic and advanced statistics, you can see that Jordie Benn was a pretty effective player for the Dallas Stars this past season. Although it is reasonable to conclude that his last name definitely helped him ascend up the career ladder into the NHL (it helps having a younger brother who is the face of the franchise), I think his development throughout these past years has been quite astonishing. Any time a guy can go from a CHL hockey player to an effective top four defenseman on an NHL playoff team, I tip my cap.

Does Jordie Benn’s game still come with some weaknesses? Absolutely. He can still get lost in his own zone on occasion and can distribute the puck to the opposing team at times. But he’s still adjusting to the NHL game. He’ll continue to grow as a player. Is he a top four defenseman on a Stanley Cup champion team? Maybe, maybe not. But I just don’t know if I can doubt this guy anymore. Can you? He has a very long history of proving those who doubt him wrong. I think he enjoys it.

As we sit back and witness the emergence of Jordie Benn from the shadows of his younger brother, it can only make Stars fans happy. His career path is one that deserves recognition and we all hope that he can continue his upward trajectory and see success on the Stars back end for many years to come.

-Chase Davis

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