If this were a newspaper or magazine feature, we could probably tell you some story about how Jamie Benn had his hands covering his face, maybe slumped down next to his locker. Maybe Benn is on the verge of tears, the young hockey player learning first hand that nothing comes easy in the National Hockey League. A season ago, his Dallas Stars lost on the final game of the season, failing to beat the Minnesota Wild and punching their own ticket into the playoffs. This season a late-season slump knocked the Stars out of contention.
And Jamie Benn is bitter. And Jamie Benn will continue to work hard this summer and turn this team into contenders. And so on, and so forth.
Part of the problem with the beginning of the National Hockey League playoffs is that we immediately cut about half of the league’s star players from our regular nightly viewing. Four of the top ten goal scorers in the NHL, Matt Moulson, Corey Perry, Phil Kessel and Steven Stamkos, are done until October. I’m not too worried that I won’t have to watch their teams play, but they are themselves entertaining, electrifying players who make things happen on the ice.
A quality team doesn’t make a game fun to watch, it takes quality players. The difference between the best teams and the worst teams doesn’t land upon the quality of its stars—every team has them—but the quality of its system, it’s coaching, it’s ability to influence match ups, and the quality of the depth players who play the tough minutes and keep the engine running.
When you put all the players together as a machine, and figure out what’s happening on the ice, whether it’s by numbers or a keen eye for the game, you begin to notice that fourth defencemen, depth players, appear on the ice more than most superstars do. You begin to notice that the star players only have a couple of extra minutes a game, usually one or two shifts, within which to influence an outcome, and, judging by the quality of players who won’t be partaking in the NHL playoffs, star players can’t do that.
Of course, the star players will take the heat. You can’t open a newspaper in Toronto without reading about how Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf aren’t the right leadership group for their local hockey team, and you can’t chuck a stone in Edmonton without striking somebody who thinks Shawn Horcoff or Ales Hemsky is a detriment to theirs.
But that’s just conventional wisdom, and when things go wrong, you can’t blame the bottom six guys, many of whom won’t be employed in the NHL when the team is good again, guys who do work hard and have come by every minute of their careers honestly. But as one NHL coach put it in an article I read this weekend, sometimes you just have to mute the television, the conversation, and the buzzwords, and, if you’re in the hockey business, try and recognize exactly what is happening in a hockey game.
The coach, Dave Tippett of Phoenix Coyotes fame, has as suspected, puts a certain amount of faith into numbers as a tool of player evaluation:
“We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck.
“Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.”
Tippett was in Dallas for six years and made the playoffs for the first five of them. Since his firing, Dallas have seen two 5th place finishes and a 4th. Who knows whether he had any say in selecting Jamie Benn, a forward for the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies who had scored 65 goals in 53 points, to the Stars in the 5th round of the 2007 draft. Maybe if this were the afore-mentioned magazine article, we could drum up an interview with the management group that drafted Benn, how one scout caught wind of the player when in town interviewing another player, but Benn caught his eye instead.
Then we could parse how Benn was a well-spoken man in the pre-draft interview, a player who was just going to work hard and let the chips fall where they may. Then maybe we could spare some words for anecdotes from his teammates of pranks they’ve pulled and jokes they’ve shared together.
I can tell you that Benn has really impressed me as a hockey player moreso than a person. Our lone in-person encounter came at the end of the 2009 WHL season when I somehow found myself drunk in the catacombs of the rink in Kamloops after the Blazers got lit up by Benn’s Kelowna Rockets. Our chat never really reached a point beyond bitching about Pierre McGuire botching the call of Jordan Eberle’s goal against the Russians at that year’s World Juniors. Benn was on that team and admitted he still watched that goal regularly on Youtube.
I came across Benn as a hockey player organically. One of my favourite things about a player is whether or not he has an ability to influence shots close to the net, regardless of how he does it. This year, tracking scoring chances for a team has me noticing which players tend to do that more. Well, in one game I tracked that the Dallas Stars found themselves in, he had five shot attempts that were recorded as scoring chances, and in another, him and his linemate Steve Ott teamed up for seven. If a guy is recording multiple shots per game, you know he’s generating chances, and he had 12 games this season wherein he recorded five or more shots on goal, and just three where he didn’t record any.
But you aren’t impressed by that. This might impress you: Benn doesn’t get very much help on the powerplay, which doesn’t contribute to his point totals all that much. He got just 2:17 of powerplay time per game, which was 138th in the NHL among forwards. He didn’t necessarily light up the league in goals (26, good for 45th in the league) or points (63, which was 44th) but he was a scoring force at even strength. His 203 shots put him at 69th, but he also played only 71 games. Slice that down, and you begin to be impressed by Jamie Benn:
At the conclusion of Game 82, I checked Behind The Net.ca to find out which players had done the most damage at even strength. “Even strength points per 60 minutes” is always a good measure for this, as long as you filter out the players who didn’t play in enough games for the measure to really count. Evgeni Malkin is first at 3.66, Eberle is, somewhat surprisingly, second at 3.08. Third place is Jamie Benn at 2.88 points per 60 minutes of play, tied with Steven Stamkos.
Break that down further: Benn played the toughest minutes of that group. Behind The Net allows us to calculate the difficulty of a player’s minutes. Corsi Rel QoC calculates the average relative Corsi of an opponent, weighted by how many minutes were seen against a particular opponent. Benn has a higher Corsi Rel QoC than Malkin or Eberle, actually drawing tough match ups more than those two. It was also higher than Stamkos’ or Jason Spezza’s, who was 5th.
Moreover, Benn, thanks to the fact that Dallas is a pretty bad team that doesn’t often earn starts in the offensive zone, was forced to have to move the puck forward a lot. While he didn’t necessarily have to play “defensive minutes” by which zone starts is classically used (his 48.1% offensive zone start rate only means that he started 25 more shifts in the defensive than offensive zone) he still didn’t earn the significant lineup protection that were given to Malkin and Eberle, who both started 60% of their shifts at the other end of the ice.
Basically, we have a hockey player who moves the puck and scores a lot despite his situations. He will also be just 23 going into his next season, and he will probably be making much more money than the $821,667 he earned as an NHL player this season, going into the summer with an impressive resume.
Still, Benn, a towel now draped over his neck and still silent (according to our story, anyway) is still going to do everything right in the summer to help his Stars team make its way back to the NHL postseason. Benn may not be old enough to have been around those dominant Stars teams of a decade ago that were perennial contenders, but he’s old enough to remember them, old enough to know that two years of being so close sometimes isn’t enough.