Matching Minors: Is It The Coaching?

Logan and Wes try to determine if coaching is reason for the Stars’ first period woes, and if Gallant is the right fit down the road for the team.

Wes: Gerard Gallant is out in Vegas, hopefully with cab fare this time. In what feels like a surprising move, the Vegas Golden Knights cut loose the only coach they’ve ever had and will turn to San Jose Sharks cast-off Peter DeBoer. It’s a fascinating situation, actually, in a frankly bonkers Pacific Division, but that’s not the bit that matters to Dallas Stars fans.

The news broke one day after Dallas’ ugly-as-bowling-shoes victory in Colorado. It’s yet another in a string of bafflingly positive results for a team that cannot seem to line up its process (often ugly) with its results (undeniably positive). For a team currently run by an interim head coach — Rick Bowness — the impulse to cast covetous glances at a flashy free agent is strong, but is it healthy?

Logan, I’m going to start with a simple question, yet one I have been absolutely unable to answer. Are the 2019-20 Dallas Stars any good?

Sorry, let me rephrase. Are the 2019-20 Dallas Stars actually really good?

Sorry, again, one last try. What the heck are the 2019-20 Dallas Stars?

I ask because I should know, but I don’t. Some nights I watch Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin steal entire periods waiting for the rest of the lineup to arrive. Other nights it feels like the game could stretch nine periods and the Stars still wouldn’t give up a single quality chance. One minute, the Dallas power play is 8-for-17 and impossible to stop without video review, the next they’re lobbing puck after puck into Not-An-All-Star Aaron Dell to no effect.

It’s coaching, right? Tell me it’s coaching.

Logan: I have spent the entirety of this season trying to figure out the answer to that question, Wes. During the 1-7-1 start, I was sure that it was the coaching — and honestly a bit surprised that Jim Montgomery wasn’t let go for that abysmal record. And then I looked away for about two weeks sometime in early November (thanks, reconstructive knee surgery) and suddenly the Dallas Stars were good? Better than good? Red-hot and setting records good? But then I started paying attention to the style of play and found myself saying “Oh no,” a lot. Ugly-as-bowling-shoes doesn’t just describe their play against Colorado at the end of last week. I think it also applies to the first period in nearly every game since the start of December.

The team has struggled to find its rhythm in the offensive zone in the first period all season, and especially in the last six weeks. Watching the first period, it feels like watching the Stars play as if they forgot to dress their top line (much like Minnesota forgot to list a sixth defenseman last week). They play gritty, they grind out the period, they usually go down a goal (or two), and then come out of the locker room at the start of the second or third period as if they were a completely different team. I think a large part of that shift in performance mid-game is due to Jamie Benn and the rest of the leadership and whatever they must be saying to the team during intermission.

So, is it the coaching? At first, I didn’t think so. The shift in play during the games seems to be something that comes from the players, not from any changes by the coaching staff. However, I do think the coaching has affected the first period performance since the end of December. Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov have both seen dramatically reduced time on ice since Rick Bowness stepped into the role of interim head coach. Lines that have worked well together in the past are suddenly put in the blender with the on-ice result being lopsided play, missed passes, and sloppy zone entries. Bowness may have been the assistant coach and worked with this team all season, but his subtle (or not-so-subtle) tweaks to the way shifts are played on the ice has had a major impact on the offensive output in first periods for Dallas.

In essence, yes, it’s the coaching. It’s natural for every coach, when stepping into a new position or taking over at the helm for a new team, to want to get their hands dirty and tweak the lineup, shuffle defensive pairs, and try different chemistry pairings to shock a team out of their rut, whatever that rut may be. The Stars have been in a rut of poor play in the first period all season, but, oddly, it seems to have worked for them. Since Bowness stepped in, I’ve noticed an increase in the opposing team’s lead on the scoresheet by the end of the first intermission. That first period rut seems to be getting deeper.

With all that said, where does that leave Dallas and Bowness for the second half of the season? Does Bowness need to listen to #HockeyTwitter and give Gurianov and Hintz top-line minutes? Is the current style of ugly-as-bowling-shoes one night and make-it-look-silly-easy the next sustainable? What can Bowness do to sustain the Stars’ streak up the standings? Help me, Obi-Wes Kenobi, you’re my only hope!

Wes: Bowness can immediately change the way he handles the forwards, for one. Dallas is poised to enter the post-bye week season as an absolutely moribund offense. Seriously, only the actively tanking Detroit Red Wings (66) have scored fewer goals at five on five than Dallas (75). In 2020, if you are that close to Detroit in any metric, something is broken, wrong, and needs immediately adjustment. In my opinion, fixing this situation is literally the reason a team has a coach in the first place.

There are obvious elements, like finding more than 12:40 per night for your fourth highest goal-scoring forward, but Denis Gurianov is only the most obvious of this team’s deficiencies. Look at the bigger names. Benn’s struggles have been much-discussed, Joe Pavelski is 35 years old, and Alexander Radulov is 33. Decline should be expected for any one of those players, but to see all three suddenly fall off a cliff together? For that matter, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg are both 27 years old. When the “Big Three” of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov all virtually disappear on the ice, the head coach has to step in and make time-on-ice and line shift changes.

Too many separate pieces of the Dallas Stars have begun to struggle at the exact same time to write things off as the natural ebb and flow of high-end hockey players. This team is not the Benn-Seguin-Spezza or Benn-Seguin-Radulov Dallas Stars of seasons past. Miro Heiskanen is a modern marvel, and even if their overall games have warts, the likes of Gurianov and Roope Hintz can change the nature of an NHL game if given the chance. There is talent and there are options, which I believe leaves the burden on the coaching staff.

Perhaps the team needs to be less selective. Alexander Ovechkin is going to pass Wayne Gretzky not because he shoots 20 percent every year, but because he finds 350-plus shots. Quantity has a quality all its own. About 200 of those shots also seem to come from the exact same spot. Sometimes you add variables, other times you dig hard into what works. Were I to be coaching the Stars, I’d fine any top-six player that could not find at least 5-7 shots on goal each and every game, no matter where they come from. To add a little meat, Dallas is 21st in the league in total shot attempts this season (2,080). Not good enough.

Listen, the FCC line (and CDC line for that matter) are fantastic. I wrote up Radek Faksa a few weeks ago. Come playoff time, the ability to draw upon a strong defensive base will be of immeasurable value. I’m just saying that, right now, the mix is way off. It’s a mentality thing. Right now, it feels like the Stars are worried about the other team scoring twice and have built their entire team concept around preventing that.

My two cents? The Dallas Stars should enter each and every game specifically tasked with scoring four goals. Pinch? Fine. Force the occasional risky pass? Okay. They’ve got the horses to soak up a few uh-ohs.

Which brings me to the big question. We know that GM Jim Nill has given Rick Bowness the rest of the season. Even if it’s just a theoretical exercise, would you pull the trigger on a coaching change this late in the season? If yes, is Gerard Gallant your guy? Does Nill still have former head coach Lindy Ruff’s number laying around, or are we stuck?

Logan: Wes, you’ve got me wanting to play armchair GM or write a novel in response. Let’s see if I can land somewhere in the middle.

We started writing this article the night after Dallas had that ugly-as-bowling shoes win to Colorado. We’re finishing it up less than 24 hours after the stuff-of-nightmares blowout loss in Minnesota. Before the Minnesota game? I would have said to stick with Bowness and hope that as he settles into the interim role he would even out the share of ice time among the lines. After all, no coaching change results in overnight improvement. Look at every other coaching change made this season or even last season. It takes a minimum of three weeks if not a full month for any effects to become apparent. No team immediately goes “Right, well, time to move on, try a totally new style of play and race to the top of the division standings!” If a roster reacted that way to a coaching change, A) get the popcorn and B) why didn’t the players put that effort forward before the change?

Until the Minnesota game, I was hopeful that Bowness would settle into a rhythm with the team. Every coach wants to tweak the lines and how the play is conducted on the ice, but eventually, a coach has to acquiesce to what works best given the current roster. The current Dallas roster has a couple of young guns that can turn just about any opposing NHL team on its head. They have a top line that, although lacking in production of late, still strikes fear into the opposing team and can create chances based on that fear. And they have a goaltender tandem that makes up for (but certainly does not excuse) the errors in the defensive zone. Bowness just has to recognize that and play to those strengths instead of pushing changes that Montgomery instituted or that Bowness himself introduced within the last few weeks.

All of that is well and good, but after the game in St. Paul on Saturday, it’s clear that Bowness isn’t ready to recognize those strengths and retool his on-ice approach to match. No amount of line-blending made up for the lifeless on-ice effort. The last time I can remember seeing a blowout that awful was in Tampa Bay last season. The difference between then and now? The Stars actually had offensive output from most of their lines (including their top line) and didn’t consistently start a game from behind only to struggle back for a possible win. Now? It feels as if the Stars are floundering and not making the necessary changes to correct their course.

What are those changes? Evenly distribute ice time for starters, especially for Gurianov and Hintz. We’ve seen plenty of games this season where those two have turned it around for the Stars and salvaged a poor start. Another change might be money on the locker room board like you suggested, Wes. Nothing like a little friendly competition between teammates or player fines to light a fire for improvement. And I hate to say it but…

Change the man in the head coach hot seat. I know, I know, don’t come for me with pitchforks and torches just yet. Most of the problems the Stars have exhibited since Bowness took over were actually present before the change. Even Montgomery struggled with getting the Stars out of their come-from-behind deficit. And it’s clear that the changes Bowness has enacted haven’t fixed that problem at all. So, I think at this point that the best solution for the Stars would be to hire a head coach now. Who should they call? Gerard Gallant. All of #HockeyTwitter was abuzz when he was surprisingly fired just under a week ago. Gallant took an expansion team that everyone expected to flop in their first season and coached them into history. No expansion team has ever performed the way Gallant’s Vegas Golden Knights have through their first three seasons, and Gallant had a large hand in that.

It’s clear that Gallant has the necessary skills to take a struggling roster and coach them through a grueling season and into the Stanley Cup Final. If Gallant could do that with a then-unknown roster in Vegas, what could he do with a superstar roster in Dallas? Gallant knows how to handle adversity and combat it within the locker room and on the ice, and that knowledge is exactly what Dallas needs right now. The reason for his firing was questionable at best, and the recent struggles that Vegas has faced have been partly due to a normal midseason slump and partly due to poor goaltending.

If I were in Nill’s seat and looking at the tape from the Minnesota blowout, I’d be lunging for my phone and dialing Gallant faster than you can say “puck luck.” I know Nill has said Bowness is here to stay as interim head coach for the rest of the season, but after Dallas’ abysmal performance in St. Paul? It’s time for a shock reset to the system, and I think that Gerard Gallant is precisely the shock that Dallas needs. At the very least, Gallant can help Dallas overcome their first period woes. At the best? Well, just look at Vegas’ postseason track record and let your imagination run just a bit wild.

Oh, and Wes, as for your question about calling former head coach Lindy Ruff? I’ll let this Bugs Bunny GIF speak for me: