Opinion: Denis Gurianov Can Do Better, But Dallas is the One Guilty of Not Trying

Denis Gurianov was healthy scratched by Rick Bowness for Tuesday’s tilt against Winnipeg, explaining why the NHL still has a problem developing its players.

We’ll talk about Denis Gurianov being scratched on a team that desperately needs goals in a second, but let’s start with something more sobering. Did you know that for physicians in the middle of their residency, the risk of a motor vehicle accident increases by 16.2 percent? The reason: residents don’t get enough sleep. You might be wondering why that’s relevant to what is about to be a very extended rant about development and Gurianov, but I couldn’t tell you.

And it’s not because I thought it’d be a “clever” hook. I’m still trying to figure that out. Maybe you can help me; or disagree with me. But here’s what I’m thinking: first, in the dynamic between performance and those who task us to perform, oversight is always assigned to the latter rather than the former even when it’s needed for both. And two: our definition of what generates value is not as measurable as we’d like to think. Just as the medical establishment once assumed more hours (no matter how obscene) would guarantee efficiency, so hockey believes that more effort and more experience guarantees development.

This is what makes the Dallas Stars’ treatment of Gurianov special and not special all at once. Determining a player’s value is as much about how we think performance should be constructed — i.e. offense from good defense — as it is about how teams use the narrowly defined talents of its players — shooting, passing, skating, hockey sense, etc. If value were defined by what can be strictly measured, Tyler Seguin would still be in Boston, Tomas Tatar would not have been worth the three draft picks Vegas paid for him, and Ottawa and Florida would have been forced to pay more than $1.6M and $1.7M respectively for a former twenty goal scorer in Anthony Duclair.

Part of the problem is that development isn’t considered part of a continuum from everyday NHLer into systems specialists. What do we hear from team officials all the time? “The NHL is not a development league!” I honestly don’t know why anyone accepts that at face value. I can’t think of a single industry where development happens within a string of unfinished chapters rather than in multiple phases of an ongoing story. If a child misbehaves in class, the ideal solution for the teacher is not to remove them from the class, but to develop them so that being in class is a place where they can grow more comfortable, especially if they’ve already shown potential to excel. When you get a job after college, your first job ideally helps you develop your career, especially if the first job is a good one. We’re so used to hearing from hockey’s braintrust that “the NHL doesn’t have time to develop” we end up thinking about development as something that happens to young players instead of players in general.

Like clockwork, there’s always some hot-shot prospect on the outs with their team. Last year it was the Jesperi Kotkaniemi saga in Montreal; this year it’s the Vitali Kravtsov saga in New York. Though the instinct for fans is to blame the players, management tends to leave a fingerprint. In Montreal, they clearly rushed Kotkaniemi too fast into the NHL. For Kravtsov, it seems like the team did a bad job of communicating with him. According to Arthur Staple, a source told him that the Pavel Buchnevich trade hit him hard, which is worth highlighting since Russian prospects often have greater struggles than others. Between the challenge of gaining an NHL coach’s trust with their on-ice performance, and the off-ice challenges of English not being their first language, it’s an uphill battle. Commenting on the Kravtsov situation, Eric Duhatschek from The Athletic remarked, “as an overall motherhood observation, I would say NHL teams all could do a better job of communicating their plans to players and prospects.”

Just as there are always prospects on the outs, there are always prospects on the mend. Consider Sam Bennett in Florida: in Calgary, Bennett was considered a checking line center, and spent most of his time with checking line players like Milan Lucic and Mikael Backlund. In Florida, he was immediately identified as a scoring line center, and spent most of his time with Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair (now Owen Tippett with Duclair moved next to Aleksander Barkov). I know it’s early, but Bennet’s gone from a 20-point player with the Flames to a point-per-game player with the Panthers. Or consider the career trajectory of Jack Campbell: once a prospect without a goalie coach in Dallas, he received some much-needed tutelage in L.A, and is now Toronto’s starting goaltender, and a pretty good one at that.

But it’s not just prospects. Even veterans follow development curves. Look at Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh versus his time in Toronto, or Ryan O’Reilly’s time in St. Louis versus his time in Buffalo and Colorado. Stars fans have a sense of this too given John Klingberg’s trajectory. His performance offensively and defensively has waned under Bowness, but he hit his offensive stride under Lindy Ruff, and then hit his defensive stride under Ken Hitchcock.

As for Gurianov, I think everybody’s on the same page here: he’s legitimately struggled, but no more than most of Dallas’ forwards. He has legitimately been unproductive, but no more than most of Dallas’ forwards. He coughs up the puck a lot, but no more than Blake Comeau (who has more giveaways per game)—and Comeau has had questionable effort on critical plays too. Instead of talking numbers, let’s talk about one of my favorite pieces of advice from Jack Han, Toronto’s former Player Development Analyst, about the difference between “smart” and “dumb” teams when it comes to player development:

It would be one thing if Gurianov were criticized behind closed doors, but the public rhetoric seems just as heated as the on-ice treatment. In response to Gurianov’s struggles, Bowness has resorted to singling him out. Against Nashville last year, an ill-timed dump-in during overtime led to a goal against, prompting Bowness to indirectly blame the loss on Gurianov, calling it a “complete gift.” Recently he said Gurianov “has to be better” and when asked about the healthy scratch on Tuesday, he had no problem elaborating. “There’s a whole lot more to a team game and a 5 on 5 game that we need from Denis. It’s as simple as that. We can’t wait for an overtime rush or a power-play one-timer. There’s a lot more to the game. You have to play as a five-man unit. When one guy is off, he’s hurting the other four.”

What’s interesting about all this is that it looks exactly like the path “dumb teams” make as outlined by Han—even if Bowness is more or less correct with his observations. Where he’s wrong is in the way he contextualizes those mistakes. Take the the overtime loss in Nashville for example. It may have been a gift from Gurianov, but was it anymore than the gift of Dallas’ overtime demons that kept on giving (and are starting to give again) from last year? Getting into the weeds of that game, why not single out Rhett Gardner’s terrible penalty that led to a Roman Josi power play goal that game, or Esa Lindell’s awful clearing attempt that almost allowed Nashville to win the game in regulation with less than two minutes to go? It was only a “gift” because Dallas put them themselves in a spotlight where a single mistake from a single player could lead to a loss. That Gurianov gave Nashville the icing doesn’t mean he’s the one who built the failure cake.

Contrast these with Brad Larsen’s comments about Cole Sillinger’s struggles with the Blue Jackets, using words like “he was kind of struggling tonight” to go along with “he’ll learn”, and the two approaches are night and day. Granted, Sillinger is an 18-year old rookie, while Gurianov is a 24-year old junior but Sillinger probably won’t be able to claim 20 goals his rookie year either (although Sillinger is a premier talent and just might get there this season after his two-goal game against Colorado last night). Bowness’ comments sound a lot like John Tortorella’s similarly confrontational comments about Duclair when he was in Columbus; Duclair, who “didn’t know how to play” according to Tortorella, is currently on pace for 50+ goals. Granted, Duclair isn’t a 50-goal scorer, and I believe what Tortorella was seeing at the time was accurate in his mind. This isn’t about being able to say “I told you so” to certain coaches, and it’s not about whether players should “toughen up” when the coaches say mean or critical things. It’s about perspective and having access to better language to better communicate expectations.

But maybe I’m going too fast. Why is it on Dallas to do better? Is it because I think Dallas has more responsibility than Gurianov? No. Gurianov has to help himself and find his own way. He has to be better about surveying the ice, and getting in position where he can be the threat we know he can be. “Development is a two-way street,” people say. Sure. But two things can be true at once: a player can struggle in spite of the organization’s help, and the organization can still be the ones responsible for helping them. The fact that Dallas drafted him over talents like Matthew Barzal, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot, Joel Eriksson Ek, Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny, and Anthony Beauvillier (all of whom were drafted above or around where Gurianov was drafted, and all of whom are either top six forwards, or in Chabot’s case, a top pairing defenseman) should be all the more reason for Dallas to maximize the talents he has however they can accommodate him best.

Gurianov isn’t exactly a mystery box at this point. We know his signature skills: speed off the rush, and a one-timer (and snapshot) from the left dot. We’ve seen his comfort zone expanded next to players like Roope Hintz and Jamie Benn. In fact, the trio of Dickinson-Benn-Gurianov was a top twenty trio last season with a 62 percent goals-for differential. We saw how effective he could be on the power play his first year where Gurianov not only led the team in goals, but was also second on the team in goals-scored during their playoff run behind only Joe Pavelski. Like most players, he has some clear strengths, and he has some clear weaknesses. He’s not Connor McDavid, but he’s also not Jay Beagle. Only 344 players have ever scored 20 or more goals their rookie year. Of the players who scored 20 goals exactly their rookie year, Gurianov obviously doesn’t belong in the Andrei Svechnikov/Anze Kopitar territory, but even alongside names like Connor Brown, R.J. Umberger, Anthony Duclair, and Patrick Eaves, that’s still good company.

That Dallas is not closer to figuring out where he lies on that spectrum is really on Dallas.

I have no doubt that Gurianov is trying. It may not look like it, but I don’t question that he wants to contribute, be a part of the team, and help them succeed. However, I do question whether or not Dallas is actively helping him grow more confident, or have even tried to come up with on-ice solutions.

Speaking of on-ice solutions, what exactly did Gurianov do to be displaced as Benn’s right winger? Anybody? That was the plan going back to last season, and it was what the staff worked on in the preseason; spreading the production over three lines with Benn as center. Instead, with Jason Robertson beginning the year injured, all of the team’s preseason work and interest in trying to spread offense across three lines got scrapped for Reasons.

Bowness went back to reuniting Benn-Seguin-Radulov (who have struggled apart from the Winnipeg game), once again giving Radek Faksa top six minutes at even-strength (perhaps explaining why Benn at center hasn’t been given the consideration the coaching staff paid lip service to), leaving Gurianov out in the cold. Gurianov then started next to Michael Raffl and Faksa, who do nothing to leverage his strengths. Nobody on that line is gonna pass him the puck effectively or help him get open at the left dot because that’s not their style. Meanwhile, the system doesn’t use the middle of the ice for offense, so he’s being asked to give up the puck in order to battle for it instead of trying to creatively hold on to it and make plays. Instead of being asked to get open in the left lane, he’s asked to grab rebounds or get the puck back to the point. Although nitpicky, even sticking him next to Benn and Radulov seems to miss the point given that Gurianov wants to be in the left lane in the offensive zone, and not the right. With a peculiar game built on quickness, and precision in specific spots, Gurianov is instead asked to work hard for broad efficiency.

It’s bizarre that Dallas would demand defensive responsibility from an offensive weapon, and yet have no problem living with defensive weapons who aren’t offensively responsible for a team that constantly struggles offensively. When teams say that the “NHL is not a development league” the implication is that “we’re here to win” and the implication there is that nothing else matters. It’s a fine slogan (and a good song) but I’m not sure it works as a philosophy.

If Gurianov’s struggles are too much for Dallas to handle, then perhaps that says more about the team’s fragility than it does about Gurianov’s. Perhaps it says more about the limited scope teams have on the process that leads to wins than it does about Gurianov. My former colleague Robert Tiffin (who we all miss of course), said in response to my usual Sports Mad tweeting when I learned about the healthy scratch “those in power have a vested interest in creating simple solutions to complex problems.”

To be sure, Dallas has a complex problem. They’re a team that still doesn’t have a regulation win, sharing company with the winless Arizona Coyotes. They’ve struggled to score at even-strength with a rate of 1.24 goals per game. Since 2007, that is the lowest of any team. Again: since 2007! And yet, in spite of being on pace to make history with their failure to score, they’ve opted for a simple solution to a complex problem: healthy scratch the young struggling player who led the team in goals two seasons ago.

That doesn’t even qualify as a simple solution. It’s an example of a bad one. But I suppose it makes sense from an NHL logic perspective. If the point of development is to just become NHL players, then the weather of NHL victory will always be more important than creating a climate of individuals being able to maximize their potential.