The expectations for the bottom forwards — Denis Gurianov, Brett Ritchie, and Valeri Nichushkin — outside of perhaps Gurianov, were low. That is exactly what Dallas Stars fans thought would happen, and well, it happened. As dim as that seems, the Stars in general suffered an immense setback with bottom six scoring this season and these players were just three more names to add to the list. Two of which were given “prove it” chances this year under a new system and coach, but it just goes show which gambles payed off and which ones didn’t.
In terms of general ice time, and keeping in mind that Gurianov is a call-up, Nichushkin led in average ice time at 11:55, with a total of 679 over 57 games played. Gurianov came in at an average of 10:52 for 21 games, and Ritchie had a resounding average of 9:36 for 53 games. With Ritchie being used almost solely a “big body,” the lower ice time isn’t exactly surprising, nor is the slight upward spike in his usage later on in the season as teams tend to get rougher and tougher in the fight to make the playoffs. Nichushkin’s ice time was somewhat perplexing as he played a decent chunk of games yet didn’t have much to show for it, however, it also dwindled toward the end of the regular season.
Now let’s break them down, starting with The Curious Case of Valeri Nichushkin. Nichushkin’s career with the Stars has been a roller coaster from the start. Drafted 10th overall in 2013, Nichushkin had a whirlwind rookie season on the Stars as a staple on the top line with the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. His second season saw him injured early on, suffering an aggravated hip injury that put him through surgery and out the rest of the season in recovery. For his third season, while he did bounce back from his surgery, Nichushkin wasn’t quite the player he had been. The Stars and Nichushkin agreed that going home to Russia might help his development, so he spent two seasons playing for CSKA Moskva before returning to Dallas for the 2018-19 season.
Not that fans expected an offensive dynamo upon his return, but when Stars GM Jim Nill announced the Nichushkin had signed a two-year deal during the summer of 2018, there was plenty of speculation to be had. Nichuskin’s production in the KHL had been average at best, with 24 points in 36 games in 2016-17 and 27 points in 50 games in 2017-18, but that could easily be attributed to who he played with and other unknown factors.
The expectation was that when he rejoined the Stars, he would have found his scoring touch and that his confidence would have grown. He did seem more physical in his play than before, and less afraid to go in for some of the bigger hits and park himself in front of the net. However, Nichushkin topped out at only 10 points — all assists — in 57 games played. Barring that, Nichushkin had a slightly less than mediocre return to the NHL and the Stars.
Next up is “big body” Brett Ritchie. After Dallas let Curtis McKenzie head into free agency during the 2018 offseason, the Ritchie versus McKenzie question was finally answered. Fans will never know if the Stars picked the right answer, as at that point both Ritchie and McKenzie were interchangeable, but Ritchie was given a chance when Dallas stuck with him. The 2018-19 season was definitely supposed to be a “prove it” run for him.
As a restricted free agent this summer, the past season is going to be heavily combed over to make conclusions. Ritchie essentially stumbled this season, even worse than Nichushkin. Combining that with his performance last season, it doesn’t look good for him. He’s struggled to find his game, has looked almost lost whenever he did have the puck, and all of the linemates he was deployed with played well over his head. Sure, he had four more goals than Nichushkin, but with only six points total in 53 games, that makes his overall performance comparable to, if not worse than, Nichushkin’s.
The main point to focus on with Ritchie is his style of play. He’s the rough-and-tough bruiser forward, so expecting too much offense out of him was never in the cards. Compared to his past season totals (where his offense production was in the 15-25 points range), this was a major slump season for Ritchie. And in a contract year, not exactly the look a player wants to give. Under a new coach and a new system, Ritchie just didn’t fit the bill.
Last but not least, we have everyone’s favorite call-up, Denis Gurianov. Gurianov is what I would argue is the bright spot of this small, rag-tag group. While he may not have shocked anyone with his play when he was up in Dallas this season, overall Gurianov showed promise and potential for what he could do in the future when given a chance. An intermittent 21 games throughout the season is a pretty small sample size, but we’ll take a look at it none the less, including breaking the rules a bit and including some of his AHL statistics.
Four points in 21 games isn’t much of anything to write home about. However, compared to Ritchie’s six points and Nichushkin’s 11, Guiranov’s results are based on him trying to fit into a system and with a coach he never fully got to be a part of on the basis of being a call-up. Some players are all about the instant chemistry, but with some, it takes time and it takes putting them with the right linemates.
Throwing it back to the 2017-18 season, his first in North America and with the Texas Stars, Guiranov found a little something special with Roope Hintz. Even when Hintz was down this season, the two combined on some pretty amazing plays that ended in quite a few goals. Guiranov had 48 points in 57 AHL games in the 2018-19 season, just shy of a point per game, which is not too shabby for a guy adjusting to North American play and ice. When he was up in Dallas this season, Guiranov tended to be more of an extra body to slot in wherever he was needed. If we were to think of the possibilities were he to make the NHL roster next season, given more of a chance with Hintz and perhaps Zuccarello, Guiranov has a chance to become a staple on the bottom six if he can find his feet.
In the end, Nichushkin and Ritchie should consider themselves somewhat lucky that Gurianov is in this category as it might skew the grade a bit. And overall, expectations for this group were low, which was exactly the output they contributed. Despite the small bright spot of possible future potential in Gurianov, Ritchie and Nichushkin were both just bodies in the lineup taking up roster spots that could have been more smartly filled.