Can Bowness fix Dallas Stars’ problems?

Can Bowness fix Dallas Stars' problems?
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How much can an NHL coach fix, and which things are out of their hands? It’s a question that lingers, and really bubbles up during crises (consider the chicken-and-the-egg arguments about Canucks coach Travis Green). Such questions are also quite interesting when it comes to Rick Bowness and the Dallas Stars.

About a week ago, Bowness tersely insisted that he identified Stars’ problems, and would fix them.

Since then, the Stars finally earned their first(!) regulation win, and also won two in a row. Yet, after a humbling 7-2 loss to the Wild, people might be wondering about Bowness and the Stars once again.

So, what are the problems? And can Rick Bowness fix the Stars’ problems?

It’s crucial to zoom in on the specifics of this season, then zoom out to the Stars’ bigger picture.

In some ways, the 2021-22 Stars are more of the same

A week ago, PHT’s Sean Leahy discussed the Stars’ lack of scoring touch. Make no mistake about it, the Stars aren’t exactly lighting up many scoreboards.

Now, while the Stars would like to score more often, it’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t necessarily a new issue. Since 2019-20 (Bowness’ first partial season with the Stars), Dallas averaged 2.66 goals per game, tied for eighth-worst in the NHL. They haven’t been a top-10 team in goals since 2015-16 when they … scored more than anyone else.

(Pours one out for a style of Stars team that died far, far too young.)

Ultimately, the Stars do this by design. They want to limit scoring chances against, get the key saves, and hope they can score by luck or counterpunch.

Systems-wise, the 2021-22 Stars aren’t that far off from recent versions. You can see from this Hockey Viz chart that the Stars’ offense isn’t overly threatening this season, although they manufacture their fair share of high-danger chances:

Meanwhile, their defense is stingy, like usual.

Boring? It sure can be. Just ask Tyler Seguin, who’s embraced the boredom on multiple occasions.

Indeed, it’s a refrain you hear around hockey all the time. Of course, it’s easier to defend boring when it works. But when you’re losing and you’re bland? Yikes.

Considering the Stars’ sometimes-Tron-tastic uniforms, the lower moments feel like a nap at a rave.

Either way, it seems like Rick Bowness’ image as a “players’ coach” has been taking some big hits. You’re already rolling the dice morale-wise with a system like this. Then pull stuff like healthy scratching Riley Tufte in this sort of context? Brutal.

Can’t blame a Stars player if they felt ever-so-slightly less obliged to block a shot that night.

Live by the goalies, die by the goalies

Yes, goalies can swing the fates of even the most explosive offensive teams. Still, it’s not outrageous to say that all-defensive teams are that much more vulnerable to goalie slumps. The margin of error can be that much slimmer.

Ultimately, goaltending is the relatively “new” issue for the Dallas Stars.

After enjoying some absolutely bonkers years of goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, Stars goaltending went from a strength to neutral to a weakness. Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average provides a fascinating snapshot.

2020-21: -5.2 GSAA (Anton Khudobin’s -7.24 GSAA ranks second-worst in the NHL).

2019-20: Exactly zero, remarkably. (Khudobin: -2.4; Jake Oettinger: +2.4.)

2018-19: +31 thanks to elite work from Bishop and Khudobin.

2017-18: +49, as Bishop and Khudobin were just on another level.

Realistically, the Stars couldn’t have expected that ride to last forever. That said, the team couldn’t quite brace for this screeching halt.

Generally speaking, they’re giving their goalies a solid chance to succeed with such a commitment to defense. As far as Bowness goes, the best “fixes” he can offer boil down to choosing the right goalies. Increasingly, it seems like Khudobin is in a funk. Braden Holtby‘s been solid, and Jake Oettinger may warrant more looks.

But it might just be true that the goalie gravy train ran empty. Considering the age of Khudobin and Bishop (whose health is in limbo), the Stars can’t act totally blindsided.

Tougher big-picture Stars questions

Credit Bowness for this much: the Stars really have been playing better lately. Particularly since he insisted he could fix them.

During the last three games, they tied the high-danger chance battle once (13 -13 vs. the Red Wings) and won it twice. You’d think that wouldn’t be the case in that Wild shellacking, but the Stars did their part at even-strength.

We’ll get a better idea about Bowness’ tweaks as the Stars approach a key stretch.

All of that said, it’s possible that the Stars’ issues exceed Bowness’ grasp.

Murky future

Not long ago, the Stars’ mixture of obsessive defense, elite goaltending, and a few offensive difference-makers created a fairly potent broth. To some, that run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final served as a proof of concept.

Yet, with goaltending a glaring question — if not a reliable weakness — it’s fair to wonder if the Stars need a different approach.

Look at their salary structure, and you’ll see some problems (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin) and a long-term commitment to Miro Heiskanen. Beyond that, the Stars need to make key, looming decisions:

  • Splendid sophomore Jason Robertson is in a contract year. Might want to take care of that, in case the 22-year-old jumps another level as a pending RFA.
  • John Klingberg, 29, is in a contract year and understandably wants a raise from his bargain $4.25M. Will the Stars pay up? As is, it’s a tough sell. Getting less ice time than Heiskanen is one thing, but the Stars tend to trot out Esa Lindell more often, as well. That said, if the Stars decided to emphasize offense more, then Klingberg makes more sense.
  • What does the future hold for Joe Pavelski, 37, and Alexander Radulov, 35?
  • Roope Hintz, 25, is a steal at $3.15M. That contract only lasts through 2022-23, so the Stars must tread lightly (and hope people don’t get the hint that Hintz is a borderline star).
  • Their goaltending situation is unclear. Especially if they don’t think Oettinger is starter material.

Overall, there are plenty of questions for the Stars. Conceivably, Bowness could fix some of the smaller Stars problems, or at least try to mitigate issues. As far as the larger identity of this team goes, though? That’s a tough call for just about anyone.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.