Pacific: Benn leads trio of Pacific breakout players

By Andrew Knoll

Photo: The Dallas StarsJamie Benn (#14) has taken his game to another level during the 2011-12 NHL season (courtesy of

Tony Medina/Icon SMI)

While the Pacific Division consists largely of veteran clubs with immediate aspirations, a new addition, a developed forward and a sterling sophomore comprise the Pacific’s breakout players. Four or possibly all five Pacific teams could earn playoff berths, with this trio of players assuming major roles.

Jamie Benn, C/LW, Dallas Stars:
After losing their top-line center, leading scorer and power-play quarterback Brad Richards this summer, many believed the Stars lacked firepower. Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder and Dallas’s all-star representative, Jamie Benn, have done plenty to disprove that. Benn stepped into that vacant top-line center role after playing wing for much of last season. He blends agility, size, skill, aggressiveness, strong instincts and the knack for big plays into one powerful package. He has scored 52 points in 56 games this season. Like Claude Giroux in the East, Benn was on plenty of radars as a potential breakout player, but he has exceeded any realistic expectation with his all-around play this season. He will very likely set career highs in goals, assists, points and plus-minus rating. Tuesday night, he had an active game and potted the game-winner against defending conference champion Vancouver. It was Dallas’s second win over Vancouver during their eight-game point streak, in which they have seven victories.

Mike Smith, G Phoenix Coyotes: The groans started as it became increasingly apparent that former Vezina Trophy candidate Ilya Bryzgalov would bolt in free agency. They got even louder as GM Don Maloney did not commit to a goaltending candidate, but said that incumbent backup Jason Labarbera and free agent Mike Smith were among the choices. Today, there is a lot less whining and a lot more winning, as Smith’s production has surpassed that of Bryzgalov’s first season in Philadelphia as well as his final season with Phoenix. Smith has a .925 save percentage, a 2.32 goals against average and spectacular saves to spare. His 29 wins and four shutouts are already career highs as he sets designs on a big playoff push. He went on a brilliant run of 11 straight wins that catapulted the Coyotes from 12th in the Western Conference when it began to third place in the conference as it concluded. March has not been as kind to Smith and the Coyotes, but the goaltender seems to have firmly established himself as a No. 1 option any time he is healthy.

Logan Couture, C, San Jose Sharks: Couture built upon a subtle but phenomenal debut campaign with an even stronger sophomore season. Where Couture may have been the steadiest Shark over the course of last season, he has been their most productive this season, leading the team in scoring for stretches. Couture has fleshed out his very well-rounded game and may quickly be developing into one of the most complete players in the conference. On a team with all-stars and Olympians such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle, Couture has managed to steal the show frequently for San Jose. Couture’s 20 power-play points lead the club, and the same is true of his 27 goals.

Pacific Division Notes

Phoenix fell to the NHL’s worst team by record, Columbus, for the second time in four days. Their nearly immaculate February has given way to four straight March losses, in which they have not broken the two-goal barrier … Los Angeles picked up a rare win at Nashville as their offense continued to resuscitate itself behind Justin Williams’ two goals … Dallas’s win over the Canucks was their first in six meetings at Vancouver … San Jose has lost nine of their last 11, including a 3-2 overtime loss to Edmonton Tuesday, they next face the streaking Stars in Dallas Thursday … Anaheim defeated Edmonton Monday. After a two-day layoff, they will face conference-leading St Louis in yet another critical game for the dare-to-dream Ducks.