Everyone probably sounds like a broken record at this point, but seriously — how great was Denis Gurianov last night?
The rookie forward beat John Gibson — who’s a strong candidate for “best goaltender in the league” — with a beautiful backhand shot off the rush. Twice. His efforts put the Dallas Stars up 2-0 on the Anaheim Ducks heading into the first intermission, a lead the Stars rode to a 2-1 victory. He also looked confident on the ice, and seems to have finally “found his game.”
Yes, by all means it was a career night for Gurianov. Which leads me to this:
Denis Gurianov scored both of the Stars goals, both of them in the 1st period.— Tyler Mair (@mairican) October 25, 2019
He ended up playing just 10:52, second lowest on the team ahead of only Dowling (10:18).
Despite how well Gurianov was playing, he was criminally underused throughout the game. And that total is including 1:05 on the power play — if we’re looking at even-strength only, Gurianov was actually last on the team with 9:47.
So what’s the big idea? Stars head coach Jim Montgomery was asked about Gurianov’s usage after the game, and said the following about the fourth line in general:
“I was trying to get them out there as much as possible. Sometimes you’re trying to get matchups, and when it comes down to that last three and a half minutes, you’ve got to have players that know what we’re doing when it’s the pull-goalie situation. But absolutely, that line deserves more minutes, and I was actually surprised that they were only around 11 minutes.”
There’s two problems with this response. First of all, Montgomery implies that Gurianov and the fourth line was only used sparingly when the end of the game was drawing near, as the Stars were defending their 2-1 lead.
By itself, that’s a perfectly reasonable decision. The issue is that it wasn’t just the final minutes — it was the entire game. As the Stars’ broadcast commented on at the start of the third, Gurianov only had three to four minutes of ice time in the second period, despite scoring both goals for Dallas in the first.
So why wasn’t Gurianov playing more? It all come back to the Stars’ system and philosophy. This is a defensive-minded team which prioritizes reducing scoring chances against above all else. This is especially true when Dallas has the lead, regardless of how much time is left in the game.
From a system standpoint, the lack of ice time makes sense — your fourth line is usually your “worst,” so it’s the least suited to try to defend a lead with. Furthermore, Gurianov in particular is viewed by the coaching staff as a defensive liability, hence why he earned the lowest 5-on-5 time out of all Stars players.
(Of course, whether this methodology is the right way to approach the game is a point of debate, but that’s another story.)
The second issue with the quote is that Montgomery implies that it was the fourth line as a whole doing well, and therefore they all needed more ice time. But in reality, both goals were driven almost entirely by Gurianov.
Take a look at Gurianov’s first goal of the night:
THAT'S ONE WAY TO START A GAME!— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) October 25, 2019
Denis Gurianov freezes Gibson with a PRETTY backhand shot and roofs it to give the @DallasStars a 1-0 lead on their first shot of the game! #GoStars pic.twitter.com/g51Thfg5Gk
Andrew Cogliano does a nice job turning the puck over here, but it looks more like he was just trying to clear the puck away from the boards rather than directly pass it to Gurianov. Once the Russian rookie has the puck, he does all the work as he races down the side and finds the back of the net.
Here’s goal number two:
Denis Gurianov: enjoys hockey, wearing green, and scoring goals against the Anaheim Ducks— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) October 25, 2019
Make it TWO for No. 34 in the first period! The Stars lead it 2-0! #GoStars | @DallasStars pic.twitter.com/WbfXpQlkh6
This time, the play is set up not by a fellow fourth-liner, but by a nice pass up-ice from Taylor Fedun (Note: this is how the team should transition into the offensive zone). From there, Gurianov streaks down the side and scores on the backhand yet again. Outside of Fedun, the only player to really help him here is the Ducks’ Brendan Guhle, whose quick tumble to the ice gives Gurianov the space he needs to get the shot off.
Now this is an evaluation of just two plays (albeit very important ones), but I’d argue it only was Gurianov who was playing great last night, not necessarily the entire fourth line. Assuming the coaching staff noticed this too, it would have made sense to “promote” Gurianov to one of the Stars’ top lines to start the second period, giving him more playing time with better teammates to capitalize on his excellent play.
So again, we’re left asking why the coaching staff didn’t do that. And again, the answer boils down to the team’s defensive system. A bump up the lineup would give Gurianov, a “defensive liability,” more time on the ice over someone who was stronger defensively. Therefore, the coaches kept him on the fourth line, hoping he could continue to contribute positively despite very limited ice time.
As a result, Gurianov is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He’s not a two-way, defensive player, therefore he needs to score and produce points to warrant a spot in the lineup. But for the same reason, the coaches choose to not give him significant minutes with higher quality teammates. So either he doesn’t produce on the fourth line and eventually falls out of the lineup, or he finds a way to score but isn’t rewarded for it (like last night).
Of course, the Stars could turn around and slot Gurianov next to Tyler Seguin tomorrow against the Pittsburgh Penguins, rendering this entire discussion pointless. Then again, the Penguins’ high-scoring team. The Stars’ coaching staff will likely lean heavily on their defensive-minded forwards, which will leave Gurianov on the outside looking in yet again.