That’s the Dallas Stars’ record since Jim Montgomery was abruptly fired and Rick Bowness took over the helm as interim head coach. With seven points in seven games, the Stars have been the definition of average from a record standpoint.
Then again, strange point system aside, the Stars have lost more than they’ve won, and their last three games in particular were, to put it mildly, not good. The team looked just as bad — if not worse — than they did at the beginning of the season when they went 1-7-1, and one has to wonder if Bowness is the right man for the job.
Let’s start with one of Bowness’ most apparent criticisms: the change in ice time of the Stars’ forwards, specifically Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. Despite being the team’s leading scorer, Hintz has seen his ice time drop substantially under Bowness. He logged less than 13 minutes against the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers, and he hit a season low 9:10 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Gurianov, meanwhile, played less than 11 minutes against the Vegas Golden Knights, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay, logging a near-season low 7:40 against Edmonton.
To his credit, Bowness did say multiple times in interviews that he needed to get Hintz and Gurianov more ice time. And low and behold, both played about 17.5 minutes in the Stars’ most recent game against Calgary. Yet their usage still underscores a systematic shift under Bowness to play more conservatively. Take a look at the below chart:
You can probably tell when Bowness took over — all at the same time, Joe Pavelski, Mattias Janmark, Hintz, and Gurianov saw their ice time take a noticeable dive, while Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, Jason Dickinson, and Andrew Cogliano’s usage shot up. For the most part, the team’s offensive players have started to play less in favor of the the defensive-minded forwards, with Tyler Seguin’s spike in usage the only obvious outlier.
Of course, charts can be deceiving. It’s worth noting that this is the ice-time log for all game situations, 5-on-5 or otherwise. Which leads us to our next problem — the Stars have been taking a lot of penalties recently. Specifically, they’ve been on the penalty kill 27 times in Bowness’ seven games. On average, that’s almost four penalty kills per game.
Keeping that in mind, it’s no surprise that the team’s defensive forwards have seen an uptick in ice time. And usually that wouldn’t be a problem, as the Stars have traditionally had one of the league’s better penalty killing units. That is, except for the last three games, where the Stars allowed 6 goals on 12 power play opportunities. Coincidentally (or not), two of those games were among Dallas’ worst games of the season, and the Calgary game isn’t too far behind.
It’s not just the penalty kill struggling, though. As Robert Tiffin pointed out on Monday, the Stars have been massively outshot at even strength under Bowness, far worse than they ever were this season:
The Stars have been massively out-shot in almost every game Rick Bowness has coached. It's not all his fault, but it's also not the most reassuring thing in the world, either. pic.twitter.com/w0lxeWU88W— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 23, 2019
There are many theories as to why this may be the case, but I think the answer is rather simple: Bowness, one of the league’s best defensive coaches, decided for some reason to manage the forwards when he took over as interim head coach. As a result, the team’s offense has sharply declined, and the defense and penalty kill under John Stevens have done the same.
So how have the Stars managed to go 3-3-1 in spite of this? The same way they usually win — on the backs of top-tier goaltending. In order, the Stars’ three victories under Bowness were:
- A 2-0 win against New Jersey, Ben Bishop’s (and the Stars’) only shutout of the season.
- A 4-1 win over Nashville, despite Anton Khudobin facing 38 shots compared to Pekka Rinne’s 22.
- A 4-3 overtime win against Tampa Bay, in which Khudobin delivered arguably his best performance of the season while being outshot 48-20.
Now, it’s not as if the Stars simply win if they’re goalies play well - Bishop played well against Edmonton and Vegas and Dallas still lost. But it’s clear (especially in the latter two wins) that the team’s won games they shouldn’t have thanks to great goaltending by Dallas and less-than-stellar netminding by their opposition.
Meanwhile, when the Stars’ goalies aren’t at the top of their game (see: Florida and Calgary), the Stars struggle mightily. To be fair, this problem is not new — the Stars’ over-reliance on stellar goaltending was seen under both Montgomery and Ken Hitchcock. But when you couple that with the decline in both defense and offense, it becomes a much bigger issue, and one that’s harder to ignore.
In the interest of not being overly negative, it’s worth noting that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For starters, seven games is a very small sample size. Take a similar-sized sample at random from the Stars’ 2019-20 season and you’ll find anything from “unstoppable juggernaut steamrolling the competition” to “basement dweller looking to break NHL records no franchise wants to.”
Then of course there’s the fact that Bowness, like all of us, was caught off guard when the Stars fired Montgomery and suddenly promoted him to head coach. Bowness hasn’t had much time to sit down and plan out what he wants his team to look like. And while he no doubt spent his Christmas holiday relaxing with friends and family, you can also be assured that he’s spent much of his five day break from games looking at the same shortcomings as we just did and strategizing how to fix them.
Which is all to say that these seven games might simply be a bump to start Bowness’ head coaching stint in Dallas, and that the path forward will be smoother sailing. Or maybe it’s a sign of things to come, and the Stars will once again struggle to hover around a playoff spot instead of taking the next step forward and becoming full-fledged Stanley Cup contenders.
Only time will tell.