As the Stars hit the ice in Cedar Park and the beginning of training camp, one player keeps coming up in my thoughts. To explain why, let me quote the Great TV Philosopher and Meth Kingpin, Walter White:
“I am not in danger, Skyler,” he said. “I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!".
Ever since selecting him with the 12th overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Stars have waited for Denis Gurianov to become the danger. As he enters his fourth full season in the NHL, Gurianov is running out of chances to show if he is knocking on the door or the one who answers.
There are some in Stars fandom that like to compare Gurianov’s struggles to another former first-round pick from Russia, Valeri Nichushkin. They point out Nichushkin only started to flourish after leaving Dallas, therefore the problem lies not with the player but within the organization and its ability to develop talent. Val to Denis isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison but more like apples to bowling balls. Nichushkin has acknowledged he was not the player he should have been and did not give maximum effort while in Victory Green. It’s hard to go 57 games in a season (as Nichuschkin did in 2018-19) without a goal or penalty minute if you are truly or even remotely engaged. Val did mature and is showing his best in Colorado and apologized to Stars brass for his performance and attitude. Gurianov does not have the same baggage.
Denis came to North America and was willing to play in the minors and earn his shot with the big club. His effort has never been questioned and most of all, he wants to be here. In 2020 the breakthrough seemed to happen. After being sent down to the AHL, Gurianov didn’t pout or sulk, he dominated his short time in Cedar Park. After being recalled, Gurianov was “the danger”, roaring back with 20 goals in the COVID-shortened regular season, followed by 17 points in 27 playoff games. It seemed just like Roope Hintz did the year before, the switch had been flipped and another offensive weapon was here to stay. And then, in 2021….as quickly as the light came on, the switch turned off. Gurianov was the man answering the door, not the man knocking.
One of the biggest frustrations of the Stars coaching staff last year was Gurianov’s inability to play the style that was asked. Rick Bowness wanted Gurianov to hang on to the puck longer, go wide into the offensive zone with speed and create gaps as the defense had to chase. Coaches also wanted to see more physicality from the 6-foot-3 195-pound forward. None of those on-ice requests became a habit. With all the physical tools, Gurianov’s lack of production became easily noticed inside and outside the Stars organization. When asked, an NHL scout said, “Right now, he has no feel for the game, it’s like he’s lost all hockey sense”.
If Gurianov is to find his game, the hiring of Pete DeBoer should be a catalyst. The Stars will be focused on more offense, which should suit Gurianov’s skill set. With his size and speed, Denis should have high grades in puck possession and with it, the opportunity to create more offense. Gurianov has a fresh slate with DeBoer and Assistant Coach Steve Spott. Maybe a new system and a fresh set of eyes will unleash the best Gurianov has to offer. Stars fans long to see the potent one-timer on the power play and an unleashing of his speed game.
At training camp and throughout the preseason, DeBoer will be looking for players to step up and show they belong on the 2nd line and earn power play opportunities. The Stars need someone to play with Tyler Seguin and help make secondary scoring deficiencies a thing of the past. There will never be a better time to create a new career path.
At age 25, Gurianov is neither a prospect nor in the development stage. Time is running out for him to recapture the danger in his game. With a one-year contract (no raise in base salary) in place, this may be Gurianov’s last chance to prove value. Looking for NHL roster spots, young guns Wyatt Johnston, Mavrik Bourque, and Logan Stankoven will soon be knocking on the door. The only question is who is standing on the other side of that door and paying with spots on the Stars roster. Gurianov’s time to be the danger and not in danger begins now.