Braden Holtby is on the verge of setting a single-season record for wins by a goaltender. Patrick Kane is about to become the first American-born player ever to win a scoring title. And Sidney Crosby has recovered from the worst start of his career to lift the Evgeni Malkin-less Penguins to unexpected heights.
When voting for the Hart Trophy kicks off next week, all three players deserve serious consideration to be honored as the NHL's most valuable player. But as the season races toward the finish, I'm leaning towards another candidate: Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn.
The 26-year-old forward has been in the mix from the start, scoring in nine of his first 10 games to build upon his remarkable 2015 scoring title. But he's made himself a more obvious choice as the playoff races have tightened up and the games have taken on a greater sense of urgency.
Benn reached the 40-goal plateau for the first time in his career with a second-period tally in the Stars’ 4–1 win over the Coyotes on Thursday night. He now ranks second in the NHL in goals behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin (44) and is the first 40-goal scorer for the Stars since Mike Modano had 50 in 1993-94. He also picked up an assist on Patrick Sharp's clincher, giving him 87 points on the season. That equals his career high set last year and moves him to within seven points of Kane in his bid to repeat as the league's top scorer.
That particular goal might seem like a bridge too far, but don't rule him out. Playing his best hockey of the season, Benn has points in 10 of his past 12 contests (8-8-16), with multiple-point efforts in six of his past 10.
It's no surprise to see him elevate his game this time of year. The Stars are in a dogfight with the Blues to seize top spot in the Central and Benn is a player who is at his absolute best in the clutch.
He showed that last season when he hunted down Crosby and John Tavares of the Islanders for the Art Ross, torching opponents for 16 points in Dallas' last seven games, including four in the finale, to claim the scoring title. He showed it in Sochi, when he tallied the only goal in Canada's 1–0 Olympic semifinal win over Team USA.
And now he's doing it again.
"He's the one guy you always look at and wonder what might have been," an NHL exec recently said of Benn, who slid all the way to the fifth round of the 2007 draft. "He makes a difference every night. There are no shortcuts in his game.
"There's a lot of talent on that team, but he's the straw that stirs the drink."
Benn sets the tone for his team with every aspect of his play. He's a show-not-tell type of captain. When the Stars needs a jolt, he ramps up his physical play (team-leading 146 hits). When a message needs to be sent, he'll drop the gloves. (He's fought St. Louis captain David Backes twice in the past year, winning both times according to Hockeyfights.com.) He handles tougher defensive responsibilities than either Kane or Crosby.
And he's been a remarkably consistent producer, scoring in 54 of Dallas's 78 games. Benn's longest scoreless stretch was four games, from Jan. 2-7, and that was one of just four times all season in which he was held without a point in consecutive games.
“He can do it with skill and he can do it with power," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said after Thursday night's win. "He has a great shot. He gets around the net and gets tips and rebounds. I think the reason he scored that many is he scores goals many different ways. Some goal scorers have a favorite spot or stay in one area on the power play. He moves around quite a bit and scores a lot of different types of goals for us.”
And he's doing it all when his team needs him most. The Stars took a big hit earlier this month when Tyler Seguin, then the NHL's third-leading scorer, was lost for the regular season with a torn Achilles tendon. It was an injury that easily could have hobbled Dallas' offense and derailed the team's bid for a division title. Instead, Benn has ramped up his game to meet the challenge. Compare that response to the recent play of Kane, who has one goal and five points over his past 10 games as Chicago's season slowly unravels.
It's great for the league that there are so many viable candidates for its top individual prize. But by playing his best hockey when the games mean the most, Benn is proving himself as the cream of the crop.
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