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.

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    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

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    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

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    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

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    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.