- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Whether it's an Olympic camp snub or having the "C" sewn on his uniform, Jamie Benn is playing the best hockey of his career.
And Team Canada is noticing.
He's not a lock by any measure, but with less than a month before Steve Yzerman and the rest of the Canadian Olympic brain trust fills out the 25-player roster bound for Sochi, the 24-year-old Benn has forced his way into the mix on left wing -- and the betting money is that he makes the team.
Talk about a statement.
"It was a good wake-up call for him," Stars GM Jim Nill told ESPN.com last week, referring to the Olympic camp snub. "He was disappointed. To be fair to the Hockey Canada people, some pretty good players to choose from and some tough decisions to make. Stevie [Yzerman] did call me to say, 'We're not going to invite him, but he's on the radar screen.' But Jamie has grabbed it since then and showed that he should be there.''
It's not in Benn's soft-spoken nature to come out swinging, but with a little media prodding last week, he acknowledged that the Olympic camp snub resonated.
"I thought I was going to get at least an invite," Benn said. "I was a little disappointed. It is what it is and it just gave me that much more motivation for this year to come in and have a solid three-quarters of the season, half the season, whatever it is, to prove them wrong.''
There's a fire burning in him every night.
"He really is playing like a possessed player," said Stars head coach Lindy Ruff. "He's done some great things for our team. He's led our team in a lot of categories. There's been nights where we needed big plays and big goals, there's been nights where we needed physical play, and he's really supplied almost everything. He's scored some highlight-reel goals for us, he's made some highlight-reel plays. If that's the motivation, it's great for him.''
But there's more at play here than just the Olympic factor. Nill speaks of a meeting with the Benn in the spring.
"When I took the [GM] position over in May, I brought Jamie in and we talked about how it was time for him to take the team over," said Nill. "To see the growth in him over four months … when I met him in May he was a quiet, shy guy, very respectful, put his head down when you shook his hand. Now, you meet him, he comes over and grabs your hand. I think he's become a man now. And that's in the dressing room and on the ice. To see the growth in his game has been outstanding to watch. He got committed this summer, took his conditioning to another level, and he's been everything we could ask for. This is his team now. He's grabbed this team.''
Benn talks about how he eagerly wanted the captaincy (replacing Brenden Morrow, traded to Pittsburgh in March and now with the Blues). He welcomes the challenge of what it means to be the captain of an NHL team, and his leadership has evolved along the way.
"I've been surrounded by a pretty good group of guys this year too," said Benn, who was named captain in September. "I learned a lot from our past captain [Morrow]. I've got some good advice along the way. I'm just having fun with the challenge and the experience.''
With 26 points (7-19) in 30 games, Benn was on pace for a 73-point season, which would be a career high. If there's a knock on him, at least when it comes to his Team Canada chances, it's that he's never played an NHL playoff game, and the Olympic decision-makers value big-game experience.
Still, his play this season is speaking for itself.
"He is a stud,'' a rival Western Conference team executive told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think getting him back to the wing was key. I thought he got caught 'in between' last year, thinking too much versus playing. He is one of those few guys that can play it any way you want -- he can thrive in a track meet or a bar fight. He's a big-time player.''
Going back to left wing this season has turned out to be the smart call, to say the least.
"He was drafted as a winger and played most of his life as a winger,'' said Nill. "Because of the lack of center icemen in Dallas the last couple of years, he's the type of player that can play anywhere. But I wanted to get him back to his natural position. He gives us lots of flexibility, he can still take draws, he can play center, but his real position is left wing.''
Benn says he's comfortable in either spot.
"But it's pretty nice going back to left wing," he said. "It's where I played almost my whole life. Obviously to have Tyler [Seguin] in the middle at his regular position, we're feeding off each other pretty well."
Another byproduct of Benn's move to left wing: it's improved his Team Canada stock. With so many centers in the mix for the Canadian Olympic team (Crosby, Toews, Tavares, Getzlaf, Bergeron, Couture, E. Staal, Giroux, Thornton et al), some of whom will end up playing wing, being able to sell himself as a natural left winger will help his chances.
"I mean, it was going to be tough to beat out Crosby, I think, at center," laughed Benn, underlining Canada's ridiculous depth down the middle. "I guess I'll go back to left wing. I think there's a lot of great centers in this league that are going to have to play different positions on that team. I guess it's a little bit of an advantage to play your normal position on wing.''
Having Ruff double as a Team Canada assistant coach doesn't hurt either.
"He sees the good and the bad and what goes on during the year," said Benn.
"I didn't know a lot about Jamie Benn until this year," said Ruff. "I hardly ever saw him and hardly ever watched him play, [Benn] being in the West. But I think his numbers and how he's played, you've got to let your playing do your speaking in these situations, and I think he's gone into some tough buildings and played pretty well for us, and he's played really well on the road in a lot of situations. I think any player that's in that bubble category -- all they can do is put numbers up and play well.''
That's the plan.
"Whenever you can have a chance to represent your country in anything, it's obviously pretty special," said Benn, a native of Victoria, British Columbia. "I'm just obviously focusing on the Stars and what I have to do to help this team win, but I definitely want to make them have a hard decision in choosing the team this year.''