MONTREAL — You could hear it from all corners of the Montreal fan base—and from more than a few media members, too—as Jordie Benn struggled out of the gate this season. It was the resounding, well-verbalized suggestion that he had regressed back to who he really was after playing above his head in the 19 games that immediately followed his from Dallas to the Canadiens last February.
But what Benn has done since those rough first couple of weeks of the 2017-18 campaign has flipped the script. He’s logging a career-high 18:59 per game, defending with precision, moving the puck efficiently, rocking a 52.8 per cent fenwick rating and serving as an adequate partner for No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber.
Benn’s been bringing the offence, too. On Tuesday, in a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues, he scored his career-high fourth goal of the season. He also has four assists and a plus-two rating on the year.
And while he’s surprising Canadiens fans and media members alike with his play of late, those who know anything of his history aren’t shocked.
“He’s deserving of everything he’s gotten and has made a career of proving to people he can play,” said teammate and fellow B.C. native Brendan Gallagher.
Benn’s an undrafted player who spent four seasons in the BCHL, and the rest of the road he traveled to the NHL was filled with obstacles that would kill most NHL dreams.
“I went to [Vancouver] Canucks training camp [in 2008], but couldn’t make it,” said Benn after Tuesday’s loss. “So I ended up in the ECHL and played for the Victoria Salmon Kings. Went to Dallas for a tryout [in 2009], got dropped to the AHL right away. Got cut from the AHL and ended up with the Allen Americans of the Central Hockey League. Then in 2010-11 I came back to the AHL (Texas Stars) and was the eighth defenceman there for a while before a couple of guys got hurt. By the end of two years I ended up on the top pair there and finally got a chance with the Stars. The rest is history.
“Pretty crazy, eh?”
It is, especially when you consider that the original chance Benn got with the Stars—according to Les Jackson, who serves as Dallas’ head scout and director of player development—came from a very unique situation.
“We were in bankruptcy and didn’t have a lot of cash,” texted Jackson. “So we gave him an opportunity (and a one-year, entry-level contract worth the league minimum).
“Great person, has worked for everything he has. Great story, actually.”
And we’re currently witnessing Benn’s finest chapter yet.
That it was written after one of the more forgettable ones seems fitting.
“Early in the season I was fighting the puck and just throwing it away,” said Benn. “I don’t know if that’s a nervous thing or not, but now you can see I hold on to it. Sometimes I hold on to it a little too long and that’s when I get into a bit of trouble. But I’m moving my feet quicker and moving the puck quicker, for the most part. It’s just a confidence thing for me.”
There’s reason to believe Benn can continue to ride that wave. He came to Montreal excited about the opportunity to emerge from the large shadow cast by his younger brother and Stars teammate Jamie—a veritable superstar and former Art Ross Trophy winner—and has managed to do exactly that.
“He does a lot for our team,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty on Wednesday. “He has a lot more skill than anyone knows. When he goes back for a puck he’s able to pick it up with poise and make that next play easier on the wingers, and as you see right now—as he’s playing with confidence, especially—he’s doing that more and more and that leads to better exits, that leads to more offence, and that leads to more team success.”
It’s also thrust Benn into a role that’s seen him play over 20 minutes in seven of Montreal’s 29 games this season—all of them coming after being made a healthy scratch for the team’s 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 17.
“I think for quite a while now he’s been a steady defenceman,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday. “He’s moving the puck well, and I guess his confidence in shooting the puck is obviously there when you look at the two goals he scored (against St. Louis and the Detroit Red Wings a game prior).
“That’s what we’re looking for back there.”
Perhaps this is who Benn really is.