October 7, 2011

Mac Engel: In opening win, Stars' Benn shows he's got next

Jamie Benn won't be Modano, but he will be special.

DALLAS -- The Dallas Stars really need to be careful about this Jamie Benn. Every time his name comes up around the Stars' front office types, the "M" word almost always follows suit.

The "M" word, according to former Stars player and current Stars assistant coach Stu Barnes, is Mike Modano.

"I have heard those rumors," Benn said. "Those are some big shoes to fill. We're talking about the best American-born player ever."

Yes, but Benn is Canadian.

BTW: The newly retired Mo was in attendance at the Stars' home opener, watching the Stars' 2-1 victory against the Blackhawks from a suite.

What the Stars are sitting on in Benn is not the next Mike Modano. They need to give up on that notion, like today. There is no "next Mike Modano." Mo was a creation of timing, good looks, skill, talent, production and circumstance that he clearly grasped, and both he and the team took full advantage of.

No one in the Stars organization should be talking about Jamie Benn as a Mo' starter kit because that sets up a level of expectation no young player should have to deal with.

But you can write this down -- Jamie Benn is going to be one of the best players in the NHL in a very short time, is already his team's best forward, and will be the face of this franchise in four years. He should be able to deal with that.

Whenever the Stars are actually sold -- thanks a lot, Tom Hicks -- one of the first items up for discussion should be a serious consideration to lock up Benn to a major, multi-year deal.

When the Stars make the playoffs next spring, the big reason will be Benn, who will make the Stars' transition to a Brad Richard-less team much easier than it should be. Losing Richards this off-season to free agency would have been crippling had Benn not been here.

Now it makes Richards leaving look like the right thing to do, which it is.

You always want to go with youth, and Benn is a baby. He is 22, and has the skill and size necessary to be a dominant scoring center in the NHL. The hands and his ability to skate are a bit Mo like, but where Benn will separate himself from No. 9 is a certain willingness, an affinity, for hitting. Mo wasn't exactly a big fan of contact, whereas Benn has zero problem tossing around his body.

With 14:51 remaining in the game, Benn delivered a decidedly un-Mo-like check into Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson that was so powerful it knocked out the Plexiglas along the boards.

"That's a first time for me," Benn said. "The boys loved it out there."

Look on YouTube for Benn's fight against Calgary's Jarome Iginla last season when he delivered a nasty cut to the All-Star.

With the Stars leading 1-0 in the second period, Benn beat a pair of Blackhawks defenders to the top of the crease and slapped a rebound past Corey Crawford. That's want-to, strength, and something first-year coach Glen Gulutzan has absolutely no control over.

"He goes to the hard areas," said Gulutzan, who is 1-0 in his NHL head coaching career.

Before I anoint Benn as the next Master of the Universe, there are a few things at play here that are out of his control.

Who plays on his line will always play a major factor. Hint -- it will always help to have Loui Eriksson at his side.

He's still so very young that there will be burps in this evolution. "I can still get better, but I am getting more comfortable there," he said of playing center. "This is the position where I want to play."

It's the same position Modano played. The comparisons should stop there.

"I really don't want to be the next Mike Modano," he said. "I want to be the next Jamie Benn."

That would be more than enough.

Follow me on Twitter @MacEngelProf And The Big Mac Blog

Mac Engel, 817-390-7816

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