Saturday, July 2, 2022 Jul 2, 2022
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Hockey

Stars Vibe Check: Owen Newkirk on Dallas’ Inconsistency, the enigmatic Denis Gurianov, and Ben Bishop’s Legacy

Plus: is there a solution to Dallas' road woes?
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Denis Gurianov can be the most dominant player on the ice. He can also disappear far too often. Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

In my season-opening essay, I wrote that the Stars are the most fascinating team in Dallas because they are the least predictable. I had no real gauge of what this group was capable of going into the year, and now, a third of the way through a topsy-turvy season, I can’t claim to have much of a better one.

So I brought back Owen Newkirk, the Stars’ radio host, to give me his take on what this team is, what’s going on with those struggles away from home, the newly retired Ben Bishop’s legacy in Dallas, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll check back in with him after the trade deadline.

The Stars were terrible to start the year. Then they went on a franchise-record-tying winning streak. Then they lost five in a row. Now they’ve won two in a row. Owen, please help me understand this team. Which is closer to the real Stars, the ups or the downs?

I think the real team is close to what you see when they’re winning because that’s when things are going well, but it’s rare for things to go well for a really long period of time in a hockey season. It just feels like a team that, if they can stay healthy — which has been an issue with a non-COVID illness that’s just ravaged this group over the past few weeks. If they can get over that and stay relatively healthy physically, they can be the team that wins more games than they lose. And we always say, on paper, it looks like a playoff team. 

The biggest question is, can they find that consistency? Seven-game winning streak, five-game losing streak, win two in a row — that’s a roller coaster of emotions for fans to deal with and for players, our broadcast team: it’s not exactly the kind of thing you go ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up for that.’ Whereas if you win one, lose one, win two, lose one, it’d be a little different

A big part of those struggles is a really stark split between how they play at home versus what they do on the road. Why do you think they’ve struggled so much away from the American Airlines Center, and do you have any possible solutions kicking around for what they can do to level things out a bit?

You can look at it from exactly the things we just talked about. The inconsistency comes from inconsistent scoring from guys who aren’t on the top line. The line of Pavelski, Hintz, and Robertson has been consistently excellent. They’ve been phenomenal. Almost every game, really fun to watch. They’re not just creating chances, but actually finishing. On the road, the Stars do not have the ability to match out lines as well because the other team has the last change every time there’s a stoppage in play. So it’s more difficult for the coaches to get that group out against a more-preferred matchup. What that means is all the guys who, up until recently, have been struggling to score goals, they need those guys to chip in. 

It doesn’t have to be every single night. Against Chicago, John Klingberg scored his first goal of the year. He’s been pretty good. He just hasn’t scored. He got his first goal, and then, against Minnesota, Miro Heiskanen scored his first goal to snap a long goal drought. Tyler Seguin scored a goal that wasn’t off of his body or off of his back. He scored a goal scorer’s goal, which he’s totally capable of, and it had only been five games since he’s scored, but he hadn’t had one of those ‘popped up on his stick, sniper, kind of elite goals.’ The point is that on the road, if you get more balanced scoring, if you get some of the guys that are supposed to be on the second or third or fourth line that you really need to score — Alexander Radulov only has one goal this year. He’s played well at times, but he hasn’t been able to put the puck in the net. Seguin’s had that issue. Other than a couple of moments from a couple defensemen, they haven’t scored as much as they want from the blue line. One of the reasons the Stars are usually so good is the balance they have on the blue line and the ability to activate their D and go score goals from that side. Well, Esa Lindell scored his first goal of the season after 28 games. He’s supposed to be in the Heiskanen-Klingberg level of offense. 

So that’s it. You don’t need a ton more goals on the road, but what’s really interesting is this team seems to be really good at winning games when they score first and get the lead and not so good at coming back and getting points when they give up the first goal and are chasing the game. And that’s not Dallas: if you look at the numbers, I think it’s somewhere in the 60 percent range that, if you score first, you’re winning the game. 

Well, the other alternative — and one our David Castillo suggested — is to split up the top line when on the road in an attempt to spread out the scoring threats and find more balance. Do you buy or sell that as an option?

I understand where he’s coming from, and in brainstorming sessions, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. You have to throw it out there. The problem is their chemistry together is so electric that I’m very reluctant to endorse that idea because they’re so dynamic. It’s not just that they’re skilled and pass the puck well and score some goals. They’re relentless on the forecheck, they win faceoffs, they’re hard to play against in the neutral zone. Pavelski’s positioning alone is incredible as far as knowing where to be and how to play and not needing to be the fastest guy on the ice because that’s never been his strength, whereas a guy like Roope is extremely fast. The coaches have tried a lot of combinations. They want to keep the top line together because of how good they’ve been. 

The real question is why can’t some combination of Benn, Seguin, Gurianov, Radulov, Peterson, etc. score goals on a consistent basis? Well, Jamie Benn’s been pretty good. He’s not Jamie Ross, Art Ross winner like in 2015, but he’s been pretty consistent. He looks better as a center right now. Tyler’s been very good about playing on the wing if he has to even though he’s a natural center as well. Jacob Peterson’s a rookie, but I like what he’s trying to do. The guys that have struggled — Radulov, again, the effort is there but he needs to put the puck in more.

And Denis Gurianov is the one who really makes you pull your hair out.

He was the guy you were keeping an eye on when we last spoke. So far, it has not gone the way everyone’s hoped.

Denis is so talented. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast. He has all the tools. He can score amazing goals. His biggest problem — well, there’s two things. One is consistency, and the other is his play without the puck. That’s something Rick Bowness has talked about for a while: ‘If he has the puck and he’s doing what we ask him to do, he’s very effective.’ Against Minnesota, he used his speed to drive to the outside, pushes back the D, and drops it back to where Seguin’s got a great shot from a good position and scores. That’s what they want him to do all the time — not always the drop pass but using speed to go wide. He tries to cut in a lot when he has it, and there are a lot of shifts where he’s just not there. There are a handful of games when he’s the best best player on the ice. The problem is, more often than not, he hasn’t even been noticeable. He goes from one game where he’s an A+ to one where he’s a C or even a D. We always talk about real impressive, consistent NHL professionals are the ones that can have a B or a B- game when they’re not on and then be in that A or A+ range when they’re really, really going. That’s what Denis needs to find. He needs to find a way to be better more times than he isn’t.

Let’s shift gears toward something more positive. What has been the biggest pleasant surprise for thus far?

I think the play of the goaltending. Now, this is a convoluted answer because there were four, and now there are two, and there could be three again but we don’t know [laughs]. Nobody knew for sure that Braden Holtby’s struggles in Vancouver at the tail end of his time with the Capitals, if that’s the new normal for him. Jim Nill signed him with the assumption that wasn’t the case. And it’s clear that when he’s healthy, he’s been a different goalie. He’s been the guy that’s won a Vezina, that won a Stanley Cup. And then there’s the play of Jake Oettinger, who — I don’t thnk we’re even seeing the best of Oettinger, which is extremely exciting because he’s been really, really good and there’s still a higher ceiling for him.

To go back to your original question, the goaltending with the incredibly sad Ben Bishop and the disappointment over the lack of form of Anton Khudobin, Jim Nill proved that having four goalies at the start of training camp was the right move because it gave the team the flexibility to figure all those issues out.

You mentioned where I was going to take us to bring this home. I think Ben Bishop’s retirement has to be the most emotional story of the season thus far. What will his legacy be as a Dallas Star, and as someone who has been around him more than most, what should people on the outside know about the man beneath the mask?

Two things. One is what an incredible person he is and one is what a great goaltender he was. He is exceptional at both. A lot of great people in hockey — it’s a wonderful sport because, more often than not, when you interact with the athletes, they’ve very nice people. There are, of course, some exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases, they’re very easy to work with. In that group, Ben Bishop stands out as even easier to work with. That’s the point. He’s friendly, he’s approachable, he’s always got a smile on his face. He wants to talk hockey. He’s a genuinely good person. Again, most of them are, but he’s that extra layer of that.

Now, on the playing side, obviously his 6-foot-7 frame put some strain on being a goalie. Being that tall was a benefit for his size but also his detriment for trying to play a goaltending style where you have to put an incredible amount of stress on your joints, especially your knees. There were some challenging times when he struggled with injuries during his career. But when he was healthy and on his game, which was most of the time that he was playing, one of the best goalies in the world for a couple reasons. One, he was so big, and he was athletic, and he could stop a lot of pucks. But he had incredible vision and hockey sense, and so for a guy who has great puck handling ability — I put him near the top of the list of puckhandling goalies in NHL history not just for his technical abilities but for his ability to read plays and put the puck in the right spot. There are plenty of goalies who look like they’re really good puck handlers but then make the wrong decision more often than not. Ben not only could do it at an elite, elite level, but he could put it in the right spot almost all the time. 

That, to me, was such a game-changer to have in net because of his ability to make plays that would get you out of your own zone. The NHL, for all of its speed and its rush chances, is generally a territorial or positioning battle. How much time can you avoid spending in your own zone? How much can you avoid not turning it over in the neutral zone? And how much time can you spend in their attacking zone, wearing them out through a battle of attrition? Well, Ben Bishop definitely helped in all of those categories because of his ability to stop a puck, pass it forward, or even make that long stretch pass. By the way, he also had one of the best career save percentages of all time. 

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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