Stars’ Jamie Benn Proves Scouting Isn’t Science
Posted by Dean Holden at May 12th, 2015
by Fluto Shinzawa, 21 March 2015
Jamie Benn made Dallas’s varsity out of training camp in 2009.
On my dream team, Jamie Benn, John Tavares, and Rick Nash are my first-line forwards. Good luck getting the puck off their sticks or denying them entry to the dangerous areas of the rink. They are monsters. In this league, it’s hard to beat size and skill.
Tavares and Nash were always considered NHL slam dunks. The Islanders drafted Tavares first overall in 2009. In 2002, Columbus made Nash the top pick. Tavares was granted exceptional status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old. In 2000, the London Knights picked Nash fourth overall in the OHL draft.
Benn is the outlier compared with Tavares and Nash. In 2007, 128 players were drafted before Dallas picked Benn in the fifth round. Benn, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, was bypassed altogether when he became eligible for the Western Hockey League bantam draft.
In hindsight, neither is surprising.
Benn is a dominant NHL left wing. When paired with Tyler Seguin, the two are a lethal offensive combination. Seguin works magic with his speed, skill, and shot. Benn does the heavy lifting by protecting the puck, working the corners and the net-front real estate, and using his 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound frame to impose his will on opponents.
But as a teenager, Benn wasn’t a good skater leading into both the NHL and WHL drafts. The way prospects move is how they get noticed.
There is no bigger crapshoot in the NHL than the amateur draft. It is very hard to view a teenager in select windows and project how he will perform as an adult against angry men.
But it is easy to cull the herd. Scouts always look at a player’s skating first. If he skates well, the eyeballs will stick to monitor how he plays with the puck, reads off his teammates, and competes around the ice. If he can’t skate, the player will be forgotten, regardless of how well he performs the other components of the game.
If a scout is not impressed with his first viewing, two things happen. The player becomes dismissed. Even in subsequent viewings, the first sub-par impression is hard for a scout to shake.
“It’s a common mistake scouts make,” said former NHL scout Gary Eggleston. “You’re very quick to write off people because it’s easy. They’ll take that route out. They won’t go back to see the player.”
This is why players such as Benn get lost in the system.
“My skating wasn’t that great when I was younger,” said Benn, who recalled he was approximately 5-3 when he was eligible for the WHL draft. “It was something I had to work on. Eventually, I did. Pretty much all aspects of the game, you can get better at.”
Like all leagues, the WHL has a history of overlooking future NHLers, especially those who don’t skate well. In 2003, every WHL team declined to pick Milan Lucic. Like Benn, Lucic wasn’t a good skater as a young player. He had an awkward stride. It took a long time for him to get up to speed. When he wasn’t drafted, Lucic even considered quitting hockey.
Benn never got to that point. In 2006-07, his NHL draft season, Benn had 42 goals and 23 assists in 53 games for the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies. One of his teammates was Tyler Bozak, bypassed entirely by both the NHL and WHL.
On June 23, 2007, under the watch of director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt, the Stars picked Benn 129th overall. Bernhardt had unearthed value in previous drafts, including James Neal (second round, 2005), Loui Eriksson (second round, 2003), Trevor Daley (second round, 2002), and Jussi Jokinen (sixth round, 2001). In Benn, Bernhardt clubbed a home run.
When he aged out of the BCHL, a league Lucic also played in, Benn considered playing college. He committed to Alaska-Fairbanks. But with help from childhood friend Tyson Barrie, Benn tried out for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.
In 2007-08, his first junior season, Benn had 33 goals and 32 assists in only 51 games. He played on a stacked team that included three other future NHLers: Barrie, Tyler Myers, and Luke Schenn.
“Some kids look at it as a make-or-break,” Benn said. “It just gave me the opportunity to grow my game if I did choose to go to the WHL, which I ultimately did.”
Benn never played a game in the AHL. He made Dallas’s varsity out of training camp in 2009. As a 20-year-old rookie, Benn totalled 22 goals and 19 assists in 82 games.
Three full seasons of 20-plus goals, as well as a 12-goal year during 2012-13, were not good enough to win Benn an invitation to Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in the summer of 2013. Benn used it as even more motivational ammunition.
By the time Hockey Canada made its final Olympic selection, Benn was a lock for inclusion. He scored twice in the Olympics, including the only goal in Canada’s win over the United States.
“There’s always those people that criticize some of the abilities you have when you’re younger,” Benn said. “It just gave me a little fire under myself to push myself and get better in all categories of my game.”
Draft misses will continue. There is no science behind projecting a 16-year-old into an adult. Players grow. They get faster. It’s almost impossible to measure a player’s desire to improve by watching him play.
“Kids know more about themselves than we do, no matter how much we mine and evaluate,” Eggleston said. “Sometimes a kid’s got something cooking inside that you can’t ever read. He’s just going to stick to it until he makes it.”
<I regret not being able to publish articles this past week. I am in Europe attending the IIHF Men’s World Championships in Prague and the airline lost my bag. I have it back now, so will resume posting. DH>