Less than a month ago, Denis Gurianov was a healthy scratch and ultimately was sent down for a brief stint in the AHL. Gurianov didn’t let the time go to waste, using the time in the press box to better understand his timing and spacing, and then pulling off a hat trick for the Texas Stars.
Around that time, Defending Big D took a look at Gurianov’s play in the first three games, identifying multiple areas where his game wasn’t matching up to his pedigree as a first-round draft choice. His play was tentative, and it left him not putting himself in a position to make plays on the ice.
Specific areas of concern were his first touch, losing one-on-one board battles, and only using his speed while activating into the offensive zone.
Since returning to Dallas, Gurianov has played in 10 games. Initially, he started on the fourth line and played fourth-line minutes. That all changed with the October 24 game against the Anaheim Ducks. In that win, he scored both goals — his first two goals of the year — and since that game, his time on ice has increased to an average of 15 minutes per game.
The promotion up the lineup was well deserved, but Gurianov’s improved play was evident well before his outburst against the Ducks. Starting with his first game back, Gurianov was more focused and central to what was happening on the ice. On his second shift back, he took a feed in the slot from Corey Perry, only to be robbed by Joonas Korpisalo.
Later that period, Gurianov draws a slash in the crease and hustles off the ice after getting the call. This sequence ended quickly with a Miro Heiskanen goal while play was at 6-on-5 awaiting the delayed penalty call.
Gurianov does still have some issues with his first touch, although it’s much more noticeable while he is in attack mode. At times, it looks like his hands are having trouble keeping up with his feet. This is a tough catch with a bouncing puck, and the miss is as a result of an attack with speed.
Later in the Ottawa Senators game, Gurianov misses a more simple outlet from John Klingberg.
Instead of worrying about the miss, however, Gurianov stays in position, receives a second feed, and attempts a skill move to carry the puck into the zone. During his first few games, Gurianov would not have attempted this move after a mistake.
As for his physical game, Gurianov is more willing to involve himself directly in board battles, and to finish his checks, especially while on the forecheck. Here, he plants a Senator into the Stars bench.
Gurianov has two multi-goal games since his return, but those are the headline plays. Goals are the fruition of team’s work, and sometimes they don’t reflect the impact of a player on the play. As an example, Gurianov’s first NHL goal was a modest tick off of the back of his trousers. Hey, you take what you can get.
After watching most of Gurianov’s minutes for the year, I’d argue that his most relevant contribution to the Stars’ season had nothing to do with his being on the scoresheet. Down one to the Minnesota Wild, Gurianov used his speed on the back-check to cause a turnover. That turnover led directly to the Joe Pavelski goal that tied the game during the third period — a third period that may be the key to the team’s entire season.
Watching the three games Gurianov played prior to his demotion, and then the subsequent 10 games, it’s like two different players. The first guy was tentative and tangential. The second one is purposeful.
Maybe a lightbulb went on in Gurianov’s head, or maybe he just decided that he belonged in the NHL and that he wasn’t going to let anything get in his way.
A week or two isn’t enough time to coach that change.
With his success, other teams will scout him, and put together schemes to defend his foot speed and shooting. There is always a chance for regression, and with top-six minutes come higher expectations from coaches and fans. Nonetheless, Denis Gurianov in November 2019 finally looks like the first-round pick that the Stars hoped they would get in the 2015 draft.