Opinion: The Reasons For Scratching Riley Tufte Were Shit, And Not Just For Why You Think

Rick Bowness sent a message to his team on Thursday. It wasn’t a good one.

Even if Riley Tufte played last night, the Dallas Stars would have still lost.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been 7-2, but hockey is a team effort — it’s hard enough for a single player to make much of a difference, especially a fourth line rookie with two NHL games under his belt posting an average ice time of 6:08.

And yet, all the more reason to leave Tufte in the lineup for last night’s game against the Minnesota Wild. After all, the Stars had won those past two games, their first regulation wins after beginning the season 4-6-2. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is typically head coach Rick Bowness’ motto. In fact, it was the tune he was singing after the Stars’ first win over the Philadelphia Flyers:

“I’m trying to keep the lines together. I like the makeup and chemistry of the lines right now, the way they look. Now, it’s fine to put it on paper and say it looks good. They’ve got to do it on the ice. They all had good games last game. I’d love to see the lines the same way, get something going here, some continuity.”

So it seemed clear to everyone that Riley Tufte was going to play his first NHL game in his hometown last night, where he grew up going to Wild games. It’s why he spoke with the media on multiple occasions leading up to the game, including after morning skate. It’s why he spent a hefty amount of money on tickets for friends and loved ones, according to his agent:

Jake Oettinger, also a Minnesota native, wouldn’t get the nod in net. The coaching staff evidently spoke with him ahead of time about the decision, and while no doubt disappointing, he’d at least still be on the bench as a backup. But as for Tufte, he was going to play last night.

Until he wasn’t.

“When I got to the rink tonight, the lineup changed,” Bowness said. “Riley was in as of this morning. When I got to rink, Dave [Zeis] told me we had a couple of guys that we didn’t expect to play to play. So we had to make a quick call, there.”

All of those interviews. All of that money spent on tickets. All of that emotional buildup of preparing for the biggest game in Tufte’s young NHL career. All gone to waste, as the rug was yanked out from under him.

Let’s table the emotional reaction for now and focus solely on the on-ice decision. Tufte was the only player to come out of the lineup from the last two games, replaced with Joel Kiviranta. Despite Bowness claiming that the lineup change was due to availability changes leading up to faceoff, Kiviranta was actually a healthy scratch the past two games, meaning Bowness knew all along he was available to play.

When asked specifically why Kiviranta went in over Tufte, here was Bowness’ response:

“It’s a big ask for him to go into a big game like today,” Bowness said. “Kivi was out a couple of games, we wanted to get some speed and some energy from him. Riley hasn’t played very much, he’s only played four minutes one night and seven minutes the last (game). That’s a tough ask to put him in those situations. He’ll be back in there the next time we come into Minnesota. At some point, he’ll play here but tonight we wanted to put a little more speed in the lineup and Kivi sat out a couple (games) and he got the call.”

To translate, Bowness wanted to get some extra speed and energy into the lineup. He decided that the best way to accomplish that was by putting in a player who has been scratched the past couple games (makes sense) over one who, by his own admission, had barely played those games (much less so). A rookie who, need I remind you, was arguably the most motivated out of anyone on the roster to put on a lights out performance, sans maybe Ryan Suter (inexplicable).

Kiviranta, for what it’s worth, had an ice time of 10:23 — 2:33 more than Tufte played against  the Detroit Red Wings — and was on the ice for two goals against in what was yet another underwhelming game for him this season. The only forward with less playing time was Jacob Peterson — who was recently called (back) up to the NHL alongside Tufte — with 9:30. Peterson scored the Stars’ only even-strength goal, but was also on the ice for five goals against.

The only other player with that distinction? Linemate Tyler Seguin, who according to Mike Heika was playing sick. Presumably he was one of the last-minute decisions Bowness was referring to, and while plus/minus may be a weak indicator of performance, he clearly did not have a good game.

Of course, that’s not to suggest Bowness should have scratched Seguin — the team’s highest paid player who is tied for second in scoring — in favor of a fourth line rookie. Rather, it’s meant to illustrate that, along with Peterson and Kiviranta, players who were presumably on the fence for playing last night appeared to struggle, all while Tufte watched from afar.

When it came to these last-minute lineup decisions, Bowness expressed regret that he was not able to tell Tufte further in advance, as he had with Oettinger. But what’s truly concerning is the reason he gave as to why that was:

“Yeah, but I couldn’t,” Bowness shrugged. “When we left here this morning, he was playing. So, I can’t do anything about that. I get here at 4 o’clock, they’re telling me, these guys are in now. Changed everything. This morning, Riley was playing. I can’t do anything about that.”

Read that again. Here we have the head coach of the Dallas Stars, the man in charge of all lineup decisions heading into a game, claiming that he “can’t do anything about that.” That before the game, people are telling him who is going to be in the lineup and who isn’t.

This is a clear deflection of blame from Bowness’ part, and it’s not even a good one. This isn’t like the goaltending situation, where he has repeatedly told reporters he tends to defer to goaltending coach Jeff Reese. It’s not as if the team’s trainers told him Tufte was unfit to play or COVID-19 protocols forced him out of the lineup.

At the end of the day, it was Bowness’ decision to take Tufte out of the lineup. It was his choice to rip away a feel-good story from the team’s young rookie at the last minute. He could have spoken with Tufte ahead of time, telling him there was a chance he might not play even though that was the current plan. But he didn’t, and then he refused to own up to it.

Of course, Bowness will have his defenders, as asinine as that might sound. Hockey is, after all, a business, and it’s Bowness’ job to put the best roster on the ice:

Given Tufte’s lack of ice time in two three-goal wins, it’s doubtful he would have played much anyways. Perhaps, as my old colleague Robert Tiffin suggests, Bowness simply does not value Tufte as much as his boss Jim Nill, who called the rookie up. He was fine to play him sparingly against two teams coming off a back-to-back, but not against a fully rested division rival.

So one could argue we need to ignore the human element at play here, and instead focus solely on the on-ice performance. And while it was certainly ugly, that’s more so reflective of the team’s performance at large this season. As I said earlier in this piece, scratching Tufte would not have altered the outcome of the game.

Or would it have?

If there’s one thing old-time hockey guys like to talk about, it’s the effect of the locker room. Teams love to add in veteran leadership, guys with experience, people who are well-liked among their peers. They love the grit and grind, people who give it their all out on the ice. The Stars roster is filled to the brim with veterans for that very reason.

Now put yourself in the shoes of those players, of Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, and all the rest. After a terrible start to the season, you’ve made some lineup changes and have now won two games in a row, each by a 5-2 margin. Now you’re on the road to play a division rival, and one of those new additions, the bright-eyed young rookie, can’t stop talking about how he gets to play an NHL game in his hometown for the first time.

You get to watch him make the media rounds, tell stories, buy the tickets, and practice his butt off to make sure he’s ready for the game. It brings back old memories from when you were a rookie, and the feelings that have accompanied it. Just as young players feed off the leadership and professionalism from veterans, the veterans feed off the energy and passion from young players.

And then, just hours before faceoff (if even that), you have to watch all that excitement die as that rookie is told he’s going to be a healthy scratch.

That’s a crushing blow to the team as a whole, not just the rookie. You can’t preach the benefits of intangibles and then suddenly ignore it when it comes to lineup decisions. It’s the same reason why coaches don’t like to bench struggling veterans, why Mike Babcock earned endless grief for his notorious scratching of Mike Modano and, years later, Jason Spezza.

So, perhaps, yes, the decision did affect the outcome of the game. Not in that Tufte would have lit up the scoresheet, but rather the entire team was faced with a great demoralizer just before faceoff. A decision by their head coach that he would later try to dodge and deflect blame for while having to answer for the team’s worst loss of an already bad season.

When the Stars made their 2020 Stanley Cup Final run, the players spoke nothing but high praises for Bowness, a “players’ coach.” It was because of him, they said, that they were able to persevere through the bubble and make it so far. Bowness was given the full-time coaching gig not just for his performance, but also because he had won over the locker room.

By scratching Riley Tufte last night, you have to wonder if he may be in route to losing it.