The Rick Bowness era is over. The now-former Stars coach leaves behind an 89-62-25 record and a .577 points percentage, the latter of which is the fifth-highest mark in franchise history. For that, we wish him well. As analysts, it’s always worth respecting what we don’t know because coaching is not just about strategies or tactics. It’s about human relations, too. We don’t know what words Bowness used on his roster to drive Dallas into a Stanley Cup run in 2020 or to force a Game 7 against the Calgary Flames, but whatever he said and communicated helped drive the team’s belief in itself. That’s no small thing. But neither is the task ahead for the next coach. Not only will the next set of coaches be tasked with improving Dallas’ offense; they’ll be asked to recapture the team’s defensive identity, too.
Because while Bowness’ results stood out, the process fell short under his watch. Since becoming head coach after Jim Montgomery’s dismissal on December 10, 2019, Dallas has ranked 30th in goals scored at even strength and sixth in goals allowed. On the power play, it ranked 10th under Bowness and Derek Laxdal’s watch but 22nd on the penalty kill with assistant coach John Stevens. In other words, there’s never been balance. Their offense on the man advantage propped them up as it failed them at even strength, and their even-strength defense never translated to solidity with a man in the box. Those stats reflect what Dallas broadly needs: a group that can attack and defend as a team rather than a small collection of individuals.
So, which coach is most capable of delivering that?
Over the weekend, Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman reported that Dallas had interest in Rick Tocchet. The 58-year-old is an interesting name because, on the surface, he sounds like a “safe” choice. However, he was surprisingly effective at extending leads (a problem under Bowness) in Arizona and took a poorly constructed roster to the playoffs. Well before that, he had a young Tampa Bay squad from 2008 to 2010 play with strong defensive structure. Most crucially for Dallas, Tocchet had a special relationship with veteran Phil Kessel during Pittsburgh’s two Cup wins as an assistant. Coaches don’t have to form magical connections with certain players, but in every other sport—Tom Brady with Bill Belichick, Joe Mantana with Bill Walsh, Gregg Popovich with Tim Duncan—it’s an extra layer to success. What would that kind of relationship do for Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn?
The answer—for Tocchet or whoever else the Stars bring in—will have huge ramifications for this roster. Both had career lows in point totals over a full season, and while coaches can’t skate for the players, they can maximize where they play and how to put them in a position to succeed. Whatever you think of Seguin and Benn’s individual performances, there was zero consistency to their linemates. Benn, in particular, played the third-lowest minutes per game of his 13-year career and was oddly shifted back to center in the playoffs after earlier losing his third line center role to Radek Faksa.
Trying to revitalize their careers is just one of many missing pieces in Dallas’ very tall jenga tower of issues that need fixing. Dallas needs a coach who can win games as well as develop players. Some fans might disagree on this point, but I’d argue otherwise. Just look at Marty St. Louis showing Cole Caufield how to improve his one-timer or Don Granato discussing the importance of self-assessment. Development might be considered “babysitting” to some, but I’d call it continuing education. Denis Gurianov and Jacob Peterson were largely afterthoughts toward the end of the season and into the playoffs. But why? Because their games weren’t perfect? They were two of Dallas’ top six forwards in points per game at even strength at 24 and 22 years old, respectively. Why not see how high they can climb with more responsibility?
This lack of connection with the team’s young talent could be why Marek and Friedman also mentioned OHL Coach of the Year Marc Savard. Savard’s name is probably more encouraging to fans who want to see Dallas open up its game. Not only does he coach a Windsor Spitfires team led by Stars super prospect Wyatt Johnston, but his teams have had elite power plays wherever he’s gone. During Savard’s brief tenure with St. Louis in 2019, the Blues ranked third in the NHL. His power play with the Spitfires this year? Also third.
Dallas had a solid power play under Bowness, but it should have been better. It sputtered in the second half of the season and basically disappeared in the playoffs, dropping from a 22 percent conversion rate in the regular season down to just 8 against Calgary. The Stars seemed to do everything to sabotage themselves on the man advantage, from putting Michael Raffl on the second unit to inserting a shutdown d-man like Esa Lindell over the raw offensive potential of Thomas Harley to benching one of their top six goal scorers in favor of veterans such as Vladislav Namestnikov. Power-play scoring in the NHL was at a new high thanks to innovating key positions. Even “defensive” teams were playing toward an aggressive attack and experimental positioning, as St. Louis did with their five-forward unit against Colorado. Dallas, on the other hand, went with outdated formations that predictably faltered. It’s time to modernize.
In addition, Savard preaches an up-tempo style, which is important for the group of prospects Dallas has in its system. Johnston leads the OHL in playoff points, with Mavrik Bourque not that far behind in the QMJHL (he’s currently fourth in playoff scoring). Logan Stankoven, meanwhile, just registered his third hat trick in the WHL playoffs the other night. That future crop of forwards will be more comfortable with an up-tempo style, and they could be arriving soon: Marek and Friedman reported that Johnston, in particular, will get every opportunity to make the Stars roster next season. After their development, coaching will be the cheapest way to boost the offense. Savard sounds like a step in that direction.
Looking elsewhere, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Nill doesn’t go after names like Barry Trotz or Pete DeBoer. Both would help the defense, which isn’t a problem but also has questions that need answering. Among them: how does Dallas replace what they’ll likely lose in John Klingberg? Will they bring someone in to help Miro Heiskanen move back to his strong side, where he seemed to generate more offense? Is Jani Hakanpaa a top-four option, given his performance in the playoffs? Will Harley finally get a full-time role? These would be the sorts of coaches who could answer them. Last year, Vegas allowed the fewest goals in the league under DeBoer. The team just behind Vegas? Trotz’s Islanders. The reason I don’t believe Nill would be interested, though, is besides both getting dismissed for missing the playoffs this year, Vegas’ power play has been weak under DeBoer, while New York’s even-strength scoring has been dismal under Trotz. The Bowness era showed us those deficiencies can cap a team’s ceiling.
Of course, all of this ignores Nill’s actual record. It’s hard to say he had much of a choice with keeping Bowness on after the miracle Stanley Cup run. By all accounts, Ken Hitchcock was ownership’s doing, too. That leaves Montgomery and Lindy Ruff, two coaches who took a more progressive approach. So don’t be surprised if Nill is looking at an off-the-board name like David Carle. The 32-year-old currently coaches at Denver University, where Montgomery used to coach, and even served as Montgomery’s assistant coach for four seasons. He’s flashed impressive balance: Denver won the 2022 NCAA Championship with a defensive effort to beat an offense-heavy Michigan team, then brought out the offense to beat a defense-first Minnesota team led by a Hobey Baker-winning netminder. Despite being a baby in coaching years, he’s been able to win in different ways and has made it to four Frozen Fours during his tenure as both a head coach and an assistant.
There are plenty more interesting names. Igor Larianov, who coached Russia at the World Juniors, loves an offensive style that requires imagination. Benoit Groulx, AHL’s Syracuse Crunch head coach, has been called a genius by Lightning GM Julian BriseBois and helped develop Lightning stalwarts such as Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Yanni Gourde. Rikard Gronborg tops my personal list. Currently the head coach of the ZSC Lions in the NLA, he’s been connected to previous NHL coaching opportunities before thanks to his success with Sweden’s national team. But more important, he just sounds like a coach fit for the modern game. He talks about giving ownership to the roster, the importance of playing away from structure rather than suffocating players with it, and is invested in analytics in a way many North American coaches are not. Given Dallas’ strong European contingent at such key positions, it would seem silly not to consider the possibility.
There’s a lot that needs fixing to make the Stars contenders, but ultimately the most crucial thing is consistency. Did the Stars play like the same team between Game 6 and Game 7? Obviously not. Sure, we’d rather them be the Game 6 version that attacked instead of hunkered down, but I’d argue that their biggest problem is trying to be both. Only one team gets to win the Stanley Cup. Dallas needs a coach who isn’t trying to win with two.