Much has changed since Jamie Benn finished his season with a flurry, and with it won a scoring title.
Since then, waves of new superstars have helped raise the bar when measuring single-season production. Dynasties have crashed. Sidney Crosby cemented his legacy with consecutive Stanley Cups. Alexander Ovechkin had his championship moment. More than $1 billion was paid out for two expansion franchises. Gary Bettman went into the Hall of Fame. His thanks was labour peace — which may have been the most surprising development of all.
Also in those six seasons, it’s seemed that Benn has devolved into something much less.
From trading scoring titles with Patrick Kane for two seasons, to producing just enough to qualify for the league’s elite tier for the next two campaigns, to plummeting down to just inside the top 100 and 150 scorers in his most recent years, respectively, the Dallas Stars captain’s influence has unquestionably waned, and serious doubt has been cast over his place among those at the very top level of the sport.
His performance has been an immense source of frustration with the organization, if only for one infamous moment, at least.
It was the mid-point of last season, with Benn in the second year of his $76-million maximum-term extension with the organization, when Stars CEO Jim Lites called an impromptu media scrum just to rip the captain — and his high-paid running-mate, Tyler Seguin — for their subpar performance through the first three months of the season.
“They are f*****g horseshit,” Lites said, bluntly. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
There have been fewer tirades in the time since, but Lites failed to summon back the Benn of old with his scathing review.
Benn has managed 31 goals and tallied 62 points in the 109 regular-season games over parts of two seasons since the outburst from the high-ranking official inside the organization. That sort of production puts Benn in the immediate, and meagre, company of forwards like Carl Soderberg, Andre Burakovsky, and Chris Tierney, who all combined to earn less this season in real dollars.
It’s true that it’s not all about scoring with Benn, who has always been a strong defensive forward that hosts the physical tools few others in the NHL can match. But for Lites and team owner Tom Gaglardi, who reportedly routinely shot text messages back and forth to each other with complaints over Benn (and Seguin), surely the feeling is unsatisfactory, and the belief has been that the captain hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain since signing the contract that makes him one of the single-highest earners in the NHL.
It’s likely surpassed the point where that will change. Benn isn’t about to morph back into that power winger that feasted almost every night and scored in the few top percentiles while competing for individual honours over the course of the weeks and months of the regular season.
But that won’t matter much if Benn delivers when it matters most — like he’s done for the Stars on their path to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.
"He's playing the best that I've seen him,” Seguin said, offering a far more complimentary assessment following Dallas’s comeback win to eliminate Vegas in Game 5 on Monday night.
“And I think he's still got another level."
Even at his best, or at least close to it, in the eyes of his teammates, the focus throughout these playoffs hasn’t been on Benn, which in a way reflects accurately on the current reality of his career.
Miro Heiskanen is the team’s leader in points, as well as the Stars’ leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy if he hasn’t yet been usurped by the standout second-in-command in net, Anton Khudobin, who has been nothing short of exceptional in relief of Ben Bishop.
And though Benn leads the Stars in postseason scoring among forwards, Joel Kiviranta, Denis Gurianov, Joe Pavelski, and Alexander Radulov have each authored bigger single moments in the team’s surprise run through three rounds in the Edmonton bubble.
Yet, as the postseason continues to round into shape, and since the Stars have knocked out the two favourites in the Western Conference in succession, the captain’s value has reached a point where it has become unmistakable.
Benn was quite clearly the most dominant skater for the Stars in their short series victory over the Golden Knights. He scored in crunch time in each of the final three games to close them out, and had a hand in five of the nine goals that Dallas managed over the tandem of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury.
An absolute handful in the offensive zone, showing glimpses of his most dominant days, Benn finished first in shot attempts, second in actual targets, and nearly had more individual scoring chances than the next two Stars — Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski — had combined.
It was a series in which the Stars dangerously reverted back to the low-event, low-output ways that Benn has factored in establishing. Yet despite managing a single goal more than Vegas, the Stars won it resoundingly, largely because their captain raised his level, combining physicality, creativity, and desire to inspire just enough at the offensive end.
To the extent he was when he was challenging for scoring titles or starring on the Olympic stage for Team Canada, Benn is no longer that same force. But he remains the emotional leader and spiritual conscience for a team that’s been building toward this championship moment for several seasons now.
What matters most is that considerations related to performance, salary and trajectory that have existed both inside and outside the organization don’t seem to be shared by those who matter most: his teammates.
They’re going to follow his lead.
And while that may have been considered a problem in only recent history, it might be what carries the Stars to a Stanley Cup.
For that, there will be no complaints.
More NHL coverage from Yahoo Sports