An Ode to Denis Gurianov

Once labeled a “bust” by most Stars fans, Gurianov has evolved into one of the Stars’ best forwards.

Five years ago at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, many Dallas Stars fans were rather upset when the team passed up on players such as Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor in favor of Russian winger Denis Gurianov. Many viewed Gurianov as being a much greater risk while having a similar ceiling.

Fast forward three years, and most Stars fans were ready to throw the “bust” label on Gurianov. While Barzal and Connor had just finished 1st and 4th respectively in the Calder Trophy voting for best NHL rookie, Gurianov was a healthy scratch in the Calder Cup Playoffs in the AHL. The 12th overall pick was just the latest example of the Stars’ first round drafting failures.

But that offseason, something clicked for the Stars’ prospect. The following season, Gurianov was one of the Texas Stars’ best players, posting 48 points in 57 games. He earned a few call-ups to the NHL as well, and while his 4 points in 21 games weren’t too terribly impressive, his play was enough to re-inspire hope in fans that he could become a Top 6 forward.

Whereas many buckle under the pressure of high expectations paired with poor results, Gurianov didn’t falter. He continued striving for excellence, which has culminated in a rookie NHL season in which he led Dallas in goals scored and, of course, his four-goal demolition of the Calgary Flames last night.

Just four days after Joe Pavelski became the first player in franchise history to score a hat trick in the postseason, Gurianov one-upped him with his fourth goal of the game. He’s now in a five-way tie along with Pavelski for most goals scored in this postseason (6). Perhaps more importantly, he flipped the script on what was once a 3-0 game in favor of Calgary and turned it into a 7-3 elimination win.

Of course, Gurianov didn’t do it all himself. In fact, despite his team-leading five-point performance, he wasn’t even the best player of the game — that distinction belongs to Miro Heiskanen, who started the comeback with his goal and then assisted three of the next four. But Stars fans have come to expect such performances from Heiskanen. Not so much from Gurianov and his 12 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time.

Ahh yes, that’s always the issue when it comes to Gurianov, isn’t it? Despite dominating the Flames, Gurianov played only 12:12 at even strength, ahead of only Corey Perry and Roope Hintz. Even linemate Joel Kiviranta, who was playing in the first “real” NHL playoff game of his career, saw more 5-on-5 time than Gurianov.

On one hand, it’s impressive that Gurianov was able to do so much in such little time. On the other, it’s just the latest example of the Stars underplaying one of their best offensive players, even when he’s having a career night. An issue, mind you, that’s not unique to Rick Bowness.

In fact, I’d wager that last night’s performance has little to no impact on his usage against the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2. Right or wrong, Gurianov’s style of play has been associated with high risk in what is an otherwise risk-aversive system. Against a team like the Avalanche, who know a thing or two about scoring touchdowns, that risk is seemingly amplified, with each turnover becoming a potential goal going the other way.

There is some validity in that concern, and it’s why I’m not going to suggest that Gurianov needs to suddenly become the Stars’ leader in ice time among forwards. But if this series against Calgary has taught us anything, it’s that Dallas needs to be able to put the puck into the net — they gave up 17 goals in six games, with two of their wins requiring them to score five goals and the third (last night) needing four.

Then you must consider that the Flames were missing Matthew Tkachuk for most of the series, and that even with him they are not a high scoring team like Colorado. Odds are, Dallas will have to score even more if they want to advance to the Conference Finals, and arguably the best way to do that would be to place trust in Gurianov and give him the ice time he deserves.

Will that happen? I’m not sure. But one thing is for certain — after five years, the Stars’ rookie is finally showing why the team thought so highly of him in that 2015 draft. Perhaps Barzal and Connor end up being the better players in the long run, but Gurianov has no doubt shown that he can be one of Dallas’ top forwards for years to come.

All he needed was a little time.