With Julius Honka unsigned and now playing in Finland, Dallas Stars fans have needed a focus for their anxieties about wasted draft picks. The obvious choice, especially with Jamie Oleksiak stepping up in his role as third-pair defender, is Denis Gurianov.
Joining the Stars in the same draft as Roope Hintz, but with full first-round pedigree, comparisons should be expected. Given Hintz’s meteoric rise at the end of last season, which has been confirmed by his play in this season’s first five games, why can’t Gurianov follow that same path?
In the first game of the year, Gurianov played a standard fourth-line role, pairing primarily with Justin Dowling and Mattias Janmark. With all of the injuries in that game, lines were regularly mixed; however Gurianov’s on-ice shot chart shows his possession metrics were significantly positive.
His play was good enough for Gurianov to get moved up to a line with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn for the Stars’ second game, when they faced St. Louis. Gurianov responded with his best game of the year, including a rush up the right side that was a major contributor to the goal by Miro Heiskanen. He also made a nice feed for an open look in the slot, which ended up hopping Benn’s stick. Gurianov’s best play was at the beginning of the game, but his overall numbers were quite good.
Going into game three against the Detroit Red Wings, Gurianov was again paired with Seguin, but with Alexander Radulov instead of Benn on the other wing. He was on the ice for Seguin’s goal, but with the exception of a bad clear on his next-to-last shift of the game — a shift that ended with Anthony Mantha walking Esa Lindell for a goal — Gurianov had no meaningful impact on the game. The shot chart shows it.
Gurianov’s failed clear happened about one minute into what turned out to be a shift that still had about half a minute left. It wasn’t the immediate cause of the goal, but it did represent a golden opportunity for a complete clearance that would have allowed a full-scale shift change.
Fifteen seconds later, Gurianov is noticeably gassed, giving Anthony Mantha a gentle nudge along the boards as the Red Wings’ cycle continues. Ultimately, the puck clears the zone, and Seguin and Gurianov use the opportunity to head to the bench, but with the puck only making the red line, Detroit quickly reloads and Mantha gets the corner on Lindell for the goal.
It was a bad shift, but given his resumé from the first two games, that would not in and of itself rate relegation to the bench.
Watching all of Gurianov’s minutes this year, one of the first things that you notice is his first touch. Loose pucks and passes come his way and he has trouble gaining complete control when the puck hits his stick. In many cases, the puck gets outside of his reach, which usually leads to a turnover and in many cases, an offensive push turns into a retreat to the defensive zone.
In addition, Gurianov does not play a physical game. In the following sequence, Jay Bouwmeester has moved the puck and Gurianov has a chance to go in hard. He delivers a hit, but the glass behind Bouwmeester hardly moves. Even if the puck is present, Gurianov goes into a board battle tentatively and rarely comes away with the puck.
Finally, Gurianov has speed, and he utilizes that speed when attacking. However, when he isn’t actively attacking, he spends most of his time gliding, even when the puck and his man are ahead of him on a rush.
Three games do not make a season. In the case of Denis Gurianov, two of those three games have been positive if you look at shot share. His best game was with Seguin and Benn against St. Louis.
Gurianov’s issues, however, are fundamental and go to the core of the team’s primary focus. He is not relentless in his pursuit of the puck and he does not win one-on-one board battles. He also doesn’t play special teams, so unless he finds himself on the second power play unit, he is one dimensional.
At present, his competition for a spot in the top six is Mattias Janmark and ultimately Jason Dickinson. Both have more rounded defensive games and, like Gurianov, have shown an ability to be effective if given the right pairing in the top six.
Ultimately, what is keeping Gurianov out of a top-six role is not ability and it is not a lack of opportunity. What Gurianov needs to work on is completely within his control: tenacity, effort, and a willingness to use his speed on more than just the rush. With his game as it is, Gurianov does not make the Stars a better team when he is on the ice, and playing more, and with better players, at the NHL level isn’t going to fix that.