“It’s great. We’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Seguin said as a grin crept across his face during a recent news conference. “A lot of things have been said about us and said about him. And now we’re in this moment, with an opportunity in front of us, to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Seated next to him, Benn’s eyes darted around the empty room as Seguin spoke. The Dallas captain dropped his gaze to the table, smiling through a thicket of playoff beard. Because there has been a thing or two said about Jamie Benn in recent years.
Benn’s star-making moment was in 2014-15, when he won the Art Ross Trophy for leading the NHL in points with 87, which critics noted was the lowest ever for an 82-game season. In July 2016, following a 41-goal season, he signed a massive eight-year, $76 million contract with the Stars. It paid him $36 million in salary from 2017-18 through this season, but his offensive output has dropped precipitously in that span: From 1.09 points per game in 2015-16 to just 0.57 this season in 69 games, the lowest rate since his rookie season.
That lack of production combined with a $9.5 million cap hit inspired many to consider his deal “a bad contract” that “could get ugly very quickly.” It even inspired one Dallas fan to produce a 13-minute video detailing Benn’s earnings vs. his lack of offense.
The most infamous criticism of Benn came from inside the franchise. In Dec. 2018, Stars CEO Jim Lites called both Benn and Seguin “f—ing horse s—“ after a regular-season loss to the Nashville Predators. Lites, now the team’s chairman, said Benn “stirs the drink” for the Stars, but that he wasn’t playing to the expectations established by his past performances or his compensation. It was a scathing, stunning criticism from team management of one of its star players.
“You know, I think people have dissected him too much sometimes,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said of Benn. “Now they’re seeing who he is.”
Entering Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, Benn has 18 points in 22 games this postseason, including eight goals, He’s been a physical force, a clutch performer and an emphatic leader. The closer to the championship they’ve gotten, the better he has played, with 14 points in his last 13 games.
“This is the reason why you play the game. To go through so many battles with your teammates, through the ups and downs,” said Benn. “You face adversity at times, and if you can come out on top, it makes it all worth it.”
Mike Modano watched from afar as Benn faced adversity for the last three seasons and the criticisms piled up. The Hockey Hall of Famer and Dallas Stars legend played with Benn at the end of his 20-year run with the franchise, and knows about the burden on a star player to live up to his compensation.
“I think it’s the general thing that happens when you’re signing a big, lucrative deal. Over time, those top-end guys return the investment. But it’s that initial first year or two where you’re like ‘I’ve gotta live up to this number. I’ve gotta put up huge numbers on the board.’ And then you feel like nothing happened. So it almost has a reverse effect on you,” Modano, now an adviser with the Minnesota Wild, told ESPN.
“There’s a little bit of stress and pressure that come with it, to really feel like you’re deserving of that kind of money. It usually comes with production and points. But he does a lot more than put up points,” said Modano. “He’s the captain. He’s playing the [type] of hockey that his team is expected to play, the front-runner in that situation who sets the tone. In that aspect, it seems like he’s done fairly well.”
He has done exceptionally well in the playoffs. While Benn’s regular-season output has wavered, his production in the postseason hasn’t. Entering Monday, Benn has 48 points in 54 career playoff games. As Modano noted, his impact goes behind the score: Benn is a tempo-setting physical force, skating 16:20 per game and doling out 70 hits this postseason. With apologies to Marshawn Lynch, the Stars have a term for Benn’s playoff performance: “Beast Mode.”
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) September 11, 2020
Dallas coach Rick Bowness says this is the best hockey he has seen Benn play during the coach’s two seasons with the Stars.
“He’s the Jamie Benn I remember coaching against when we were in Tampa,” said Bowness, who was an assistant under Lightning coach Jon Cooper from 2013 to ’18. “It’s great to see him being rewarded. Everybody’s noticing the goals, the points, but man, everything he does to help us win, everything he does in the locker room, everything he does in practice and on the bench during games, we notice that. You guys don’t get that opportunity.”
There are few players in the NHL whose public and private personas are as starkly different as Benn’s are. In front of the media, he’s reserved and short-spoken, sometimes to the point where he’s considered standoffish.
“He’s not really long-winded or conversational with media. Being around him when he’s talking with the media, it seems like the last thing he wants to be doing,” Modano said. “Especially when you’re a captain and you’ve got all your responsibilities day in and day out of speaking to the media and showing your face and answering some questions like the head coach does.”
In the dressing room, it’s a different persona.
“His whole demeanor with the guys, as opposed to the media, is completely opposite,” said Modano. “He’s got a bit of a dry humor to himself. Loves to crack jokes at guys’ expense. I think he’s more comfortable in his own skin when he’s around his teammates.”
There have been glimpses of this Jamie Benn during the “inside the room” videos released during the playoffs, through shows like “Quest for the Stanley Cup” on ESPN+. There are scenes like the one before the Stars played Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche, when Benn shouted out the starting lineup for Dallas to his enthusiastic teammates before punctuating it with this battle cry: “We’re not going home, boys! We’re not going home!”
“It’s fun in the locker room,” said Benn. “One of the best teams, if not the best team, that I’ve played on.”
The architect of this team is Nill, who was hired in 2013. When Benn signed his eight-year extension in 2016, he cited Nill as a major reason why he remained with Dallas instead of dabbling in free agency, saying at the time that “he’s a mastermind and we both have the same goal in mind.”
For the first time in either of their tenures in Dallas, that goal is in reach. Nill was confident that his captain was vital to eventually reaching it — despite all the noise about his salary and his production.
“Unfortunately, sometimes players get tagged more about their contract than who they are as people and as players. Jamie, internally for us, has always lived up to his expectations. It’s not always about points. Would he like to be the Art Ross winner every year? Yes, every player would like to be. But there are a lot of intangibles that go into how guys play. Jamie is one of those guys,” said Nill.
“He’s our captain. He drives the bus for us. As he goes, we go. We’re witnessing that now.”