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Matching Minors: The Stars’ 4th Line Traffic Jam, Denis Gurianov/Guryanov, and Who Should Make the Cut

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Robert and David rival Marcel Proust in word stamina to talk about one thing only: the ideal 4th line (and thoughts about Gritty).

NHL: Preseason-Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As the preseason begins to transition into NHL preparation for the roster guys, many questions will either loom or disappear. We know already that Miro Heiskanen is good, and that he will play NHL hockey on October 4th. We don’t know how Jim Montgomery’s system will fare against a full NHL team that gameplans to beat it, and we won’t know it for a while yet.

However, neither of those is what we’re here to talk about today: the bottom of the Stars’ forward corps. To that end, David Castillo and Robert Tiffin are here to discuss who should be where, what waivers should be used on whom, and why the Stars need to trust someone, or everyone, or nobody at all.

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There’s a top nine that’s more or less trapped in carbonite: Benn, Seguin, Radulov, Janmark, Spezza, Nichushkin, Comeau, Faksa, and Pitlick. Let’s start with the most contentious spot to fill: right wing. Right now Denis Gurianov is performing, which puts Brett Ritchie on the hotseat. Perhaps one of the left wingers/centers can be moved to their off-wing. What’s the right call?

David: Gurianov, all day, every day. I know, I know. “Needs work, meager point totals, healthy scratched by an AHL coach, yadda yadda yadda.” Right now I’m craggy Joe Cabot from Reservoir Dogs. You don’t need proof when you got instinct! Still want proof? Alright, brochacho. The first thing I want in a 4th liner is, I want to know they can produce at even strength. As a very wee lad in the AHL, Gury was 7th in even strength goals during the 2016-2017 season, above Jason Dickinson and Remi Elie. In the 2017-2018 season, he led the team in EV goals, period. He had a better goal and primary assist rate per hour than Roope Hintz by a fairly wide margin.

Numbers on their own aren’t a strong argument, I know (and Hintz got stronger in the playoffs — at least through the first several series — while Gurianov crunched nachos). But there’s something to be said for players in their natural position, and right now the only natural right winger above Gurianov is Brett Ritchie. A roster is either optimized, or it’s not. I feel like 4th liners tend to have a more focused (but somewhat nebulous) profile because of their limited minutes. Look at Gemel Smith, who everyone agrees is a quality 4th liner. Three seasons in the AHL, and Smith never scored more points than Gurianov. But he looks great, and I suspect it’s because of his profile: a fast, north south forward with good hands, and alligator blood.

Robert: Well, I was on board until the alligator part. Those guys give me the creeps.

It’s been cool to see Guryanov--by the way, I’ll be stubbornly adhering to the Cyrillic spelling of his name despite the fact that his U.S.A. passport apparently says “Gurianov” because, I assume, some government travel agent thought they knew better than the Russian World Junior team--it’s been, as I was saying, cool to see Guryanov playing well after the rough Calder Cup playoffs that culminated, for Guryanov, in some healthy scratches. The Stars are better if he gets better, and it looks like that is definitely going to be a continuing possibility. For a team whose quality right wing depth is basically Alex Radulov’s Instagram Production Crew and Tyler Pitlick, the Stars desperately need to find an NHL player in Denis Guryanov, so one suspects they aren’t overtly trying to get in their own way on this one.

And really, by all accounts, Guryanov is a quality human being with, as you say, the skills to go along with his character. But the trouble for Dallas is that the narrative has been bumpy. Guryanov will put together some good stretches of yeoman work, but then he doesn’t show up on time when the Calder Cup alarm bell rings. For all the numbers that show Guryanov to be a player, the Stars appear to be an organization that prefers to promote a player while he’s hot and proving something for more than a game or two at a time. They did this with Devin Shore, Radek Faksa, and John Klingberg, and one suspects that, more than Skills, #grit (David’s note: I think you mean #gritty), or TriesHardLovesTheGame, what they really, truly want from Guryanov is consistency. Coaches want to know what their fourth line will bring, and especially given that the top-six right wing spots are taken for the next couple years by Nichushkin and Radulov, they probably want a 4RW who can still give them a quality, repeatable NHL game.

(Brett Ritchie, of course, game them half of that equation in an immensely, uh, repeatable experience on the right wing last year, but the guess is that isn’t how this season is going to play out, if for no other reason than because there’s no way I’m letting my eyeballs watch a third fruitless, hapless season in a row.)

NHL: Preseason-St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

David: Dadgummit! Micturate on nuance! Right now, I want your nuance in the same spot as Columbus’ anthropomorphic mustache rod — the history books. So let me add to my argument for Gurianov. First, hockey is still a business. Warranted or not, being a first round pick has a certain juju. Let’s say Dallas wanted to package Gurianov in a trade following a series of healthy scratches in the AHL. Right now, he’d be worth an open house sausage skewer (question: is Dallas’ package for Erik Karlsson more interesting to Ottawa if Julius Honka has a FULL season of NHL experience?). However...stick him in the lineup and dangle him next year with a full season under his belt? Now NHL GM’s (not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed) see that magic ingredient - “NHL experience.” That also has a certain juju. It’s why Dave Bolland can buy a more expensive car than John Klingberg.

Here’s another thing — a bit abstract, but whatever. Prospects give organizations faith by how they perform as draft eligible players. Organizations show prospects faith by drafting them. Where and how that faith is maintained afterward is arbitrary. Did Remi Elie do anything to earn his spot? Not by any definition we’d consider consistent. Right now, Dallas has the opportunity to say “hey kiddo...you’ve earned this opportunity...now go out and don’t make us look as bad as our scouts did in 2015, and have fun.” What’s wrong with that? Not only would he be playing with three of his countrymen, but Dallas can afford to gamble on their 4th line. Two players are known replaceable quantities in Ritchie and Elie. Then you have unknowns in Dickinson, Hintz, and to a lesser extent, Smith. The latter group doesn’t play right wing, and the former had every opportunity to prove they could. Consistency? Let’s just find some damn chemistry.

Robert: Okay, I resent you making a really incisive point about Honka’s usage last year hurting his value in the potential Erik Karlsson trade when I’m trying to sound all smart and stuff. Please stop that.

(But hey, on the plus side, Greg Pateryn’s value went way up, so that’s good asset management if you are like, partnering with Pateryn on some restaurant venture down the road or something.)

I guess, for me, it comes to do more of a math question: Ritchie (and to a more obvious extent, Elie) might seem to have a lower ceiling than Guryanov’s talent would suggest, but would you bet on Guryanov having a 15+ goal season in the next two or three years? With the Stars in win-now mode, I wonder if their logic isn’t, “Here’s Ritchie, who can finish (or at least, could) and whose defensive impact has been fairly positive; is Guryanov’s potential scoring ability and greater potential risk on the defensive side of the puck worth more than Ritchie’s demonstrated ability now, particularly if Ritchie has a bounce back season?”

And, assuming Hintz is also up at some point, the Stars would then need to waive Elie and Ritchie (or Smith, I suppose), so the cost equation becomes even more complex at that point: is that difference between Guryanov and Ritchie great enough not only to warrant playing Guryanov, but great enough to risk losing Ritchie as a controllable asset entirely in order to play Guryanov? Why not see if Ritchie can bounce back a bit this year while Guryanov gets good minutes in the AHL (David’s note: good minutes in the AHL? Are you sure you want to take it there?), then hope Ritchie’s trade value is greater down the road?

I’m not saying I know the answer to that equation, but I do think one of those is the safer route when it comes to asset management. Maybe the safest answer, then, is to waive Elie and Smith (note: I don’t want to waive Smith, but his ceiling is probably Guryanovesque, at best), who have slipped through before, and hope that Guryanov is okay sitting some games and that Ritchie can contribute enough when there’s room to increase his own trade value by next summer, or even this year’s trade deadline, if the Stars need another top-six piece.

David: What was it Alec Baldwin said in that movie where Anthony Hopkins fights a bear? You’re talking about a perfect plan tomorrow. Gurianov is that good plan today. Did you see the waiver wire? Zack Smith (who makes over 3 million a year), Michael McCarron (former 1st round pick), etc. Yea those are players from two troubled organizations, but I just can’t with Elie and Ritchie. Two full seasons. At ages where players are more productive than at any other age. Never buried on the 4th line. A combined 59 points. Nobody’s picking them up, and even if they did, Dallas still has Dickinson, Hintz, Dowling (underrated player), etc etc etc. Safe is death, Robert. Death. Gurianov is not safe. And I’m here for the sequel to Red Dawn.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, now for the easy part. Who will play left wing? Err...when Martin Hanzal comes back I mean.

Robert: I’m expecting Remi Elie to go through waivers if Roope Hintz wins a spot; if that happens, the Stars would then need to waive another player when/if Hanzal comes back if everyone’s present and healthy. At that point, tough decisions will need to be made. Gemel Smith would be, given last year’s pattern, the likely choice to send through waivers again (if he hasn’t, at that point, already passed through them recently enough), so then you would have something like Jason Dickinson, Roope Hintz, and Devin Shore all in that weird “can play center but will play elsewhere because Martin Hanzal is Here” group.

So, my guess: for opening night, the 4th line will be: Shore (LW), Dickinson (C), Ritchie (RW). I think the organization will make Hintz the final cut of camp along with Gavin Bayreuther, and he’ll be called up sometime in November and look better than the current options, forcing the Stars to waive or trade someone.

David: When (if?) Hanzal comes back, it will be Devin Shore. While Hanzal is out, I’ve got money on Gemel Smith. The issue Hintz has — and it’s worth noting that Montgomery was pretty honest about Hintz, praising his performance against Minnesota, but more or less calling him ‘invisible’ through the first couple games — is that he’s a natural center. Even when he’s moved up and down the lineup, it’s been at center. That’s not the position that needs to be filled on the 4th line. Smith continues to do everything you want out of a 4th line player, except plays wing, and he’s had the exact same excuses as other players buried with lesser forwards, but continues to be noticeable every shift.

Okay, now take off your Pretend GM Team Polo Shirt of Responsibility and just go hog wild: if you could just play whomever you wanted, what would your fourth line look like?

David: I’m riding the Gurianov radio flyer with such blinders that I actually want him next to Janmark and Faksa. Which means my ideal 4th line is Gemel Smith-Roope Hintz-Tyler Pitlick. That would also mean Dallas traded Shore and Hanzal, and just left Ritchie and Elie to the vultures. Your modern 4th line can’t be a collection of also-rans. They have to be a second 3rd line. So in that context, Pitlick is not getting demoted. He’s helping form a strong, second 3rd line. Gurianov is not luck sacking into a bigger role than he deserves. He’s being put in a position to succeed (and sending a message to other teams; “we weren’t that far off in the 2015 draft, amirite?”), with both lines complimenting their youngins’ with veteran presence. In the modern NHL, you either have a bottom six that can play UP the lineup, or you’re just overpaying a trio of AHL’ers (and boy will they be doing that if their 4th line is Shore, Hanzal, and Ritchie).

Robert: I’ll give you your due here: if Guryanov were playing with Faksa and Janmark--I assume Comeau is next to Spezza and Val, then, on the 2nd), then that would mitigate some of the concern about his defensive learning curve. It’s an interesting thought, but somehow I doubt Montgomery will be willing to add a bit of an unknown element to every coach’s favorite line: the checking line.

If I had my druthers, I’d play Hintz, Dickinson and Gemel Smith on the 4th line opening night. Maybe that’s a more interesting way to answer the earlier question than trying to guess what safe-but-disappointing strategy the Stars will choose, but give me a break; writing about sports is hard and I am dumb.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On Twitter, Robert had a list of players he thought Dallas would be willing to waive, ranking from least comfortable to most comfortable. Where do you think each player does rank on that list, and where do you think each player should rank on the “it would be bad to risk losing this player for nothing List”?

Robert: Ah, yes. I employed the brilliant old “what did the Stars do before, well they will probably do that again” Analysis Strategy, and I came up with an order of waivability the other day, upon which I will expound here, starting with the players I would be most reluctant to send to the waiver wire:

  1. Jason Dickinson, because other GMs want to take him off Jim Nill’s hands in every trade, the kid’s got pedigree, and he’s still got a lot of potential in not very much NHL experience. Also, he’s one of the relatively few playmaking forwards in the Stars’ system, so probably you don’t give away the only lottery tickets you have unless you’ve got a great plan B, and Ty Dellandrea looks more like a Plan T-Riffic! So far, which is to say his more obvious skills (though hardly his only ones) are those of an effective two-way forward and less of a dynamic scoring threat.
  2. Brett Ritchie, because he has shown he can score--16 goals two seasons ago means he is valuable, and even if the Stars are a bit disenchanted with him after Ken Hitchcock trusted Ritchie beyond what most of us would have expected last year, it’s more likely that Dallas would try to trade him for a similar player looking for a fresh start than to risk losing him on waivers.
  3. Gemel Smith, because while he is a safe bet to make it through waivers unless another team has a real hankering for speedy, hardworking scoring threats, which, wait, why are they waiving him again? Un-waive! UNWAIVE!
  4. Remi Elie is the player the Stars can most afford to lose, should he be claimed on waivers. Elie is useful and trustworthy as far as his game goes, but you’d rather have a higher-ceiling player on your fourth line if possible, and Elie has been reminding me a bit much lately of a healthier Tom Wandell. (Check Wandell’s 2011-12 season if you’re not convinced.) Remi Elie has been a really cool surprise, but he is the sort of player a healthy organization with solid young talent cannot afford when all the other forward spots are taken by returning players or NHL veterans. You need tryout spots somewhere in the lineup, and Elie might end up playing a fair bit fewer than 72 games this year as the Stars take looks at some of their other young talent. Hey, speaking of which, what about that Guryanov player, we should talk about him.

David: Can’t disagree with any of that, so I’ll just expound some more.

  1. Jason Dickinson. What hurts the most for Dallas fans is that we’re still no closer to identifying his true value than we were two years ago. Has he been inconsistent? Yes. Would you like to see more? Of course. Does he no longer have the excuses of inferior linemates? When you look at how Smith, Gurianov, and Dowling have looked, no. But he still scored 18 more points than Hintz did at a comparable age in the AHL when he was battling Mikko Rantanen for rookie of the year. I can’t pretend that simply never happened. And it’s not like he’s been given a real chance to show us we’re right or wrong one way or the other. (Robert’s note: thanks, Hitch)
  2. Brett Ritchie. Advanced stats love Ritchie. He absolutely killed it on Faksa’s right wing. When Ritchie and Faksa were together in 2016-2017 with either Curtis McKenzie or Antoine Roussel, their expected goal differential was 64 and 60 percent, respectively (!). I have a theory on Ritchie’s stats, which is that I think his play creates an effect similar to a good defenseman; driving offense, but not necessarily production. Unfortunately, only defensemen can get away with with not scoring points. Forwards need to produce, and Ritchie hasn’t been doing that even in his peak production window in minutes that were gift wrapped to him. (Robert’s note: David is not lying. Ritchie has the worst assist rate of any forward on the team over the last two years, min. 100 games played. This is including Ritchie’s power play time.)
  3. Remi Elie. I’ll go a little off board, and stick Elie above Smith. Why? Well, they clearly had more faith in him at the draft table, taking Elie in the 2nd round over (look away Stars fans, look away!) Nic Petan, Artturi Lehkonen, Brett Pesce, Pavel Buchnevich, Anthony Duclair, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Will Butcher. I think the organization likes what they see. He’s got good speed, some modest dangles, and most importantly, didn’t ask Dallas to sit in a courtroom to confirm or deny all of these attributes.
  4. Gemel Smith. He was 3rd on the team in goals per hour at even strength. 3rd! Why are we even talking about whether he deserves that 4th line left wing spot? Oh right. I forgot Ken Hitchcock “set this team up for the future.”
  5. Denis Gurianov. I know he’s waiver-exempt, and we spent most of this post talking about him, but can I just point out that he’s currently leading all Stars in rush attempts per hour, and is 3rd in rebounds created per hour? Just saying.
  6. Gritty. Honestly, I just wanted to hear your thoughts. I took me awhile to figure out. Between the clueless innuendo of Gritty’s profile pic, shooting people in the back, his Larry, Curly, and Moe balance, and that morbid peekaboo, I finally got it. He’s Daffy from Gremlins 2, resurrected by cheese steak incantations and bong water.

Robert: If Jason Danby and the Stars’ Jumbotron crew haven’t already created a video of Victor E. Green sawing a circle in the ice around Gritty à la Bugs Bunny, then I don’t know what we’re even doing here anymore.