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In coaching Stars, there's much more than meets the eye

Second-guessing decisions is part of the fun in being a fan, but know those calls are made for a reason

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

We love to analyze coaches and tell their stories.

Whether it's Herb Brooks or Norman Dale or Herman Boone, we can build an entire movie around the exploits of the man teaching our athletes. In real life, it's fantastic fun to second-guess Jason Garrett or Sean McVay or Mike Babcock.

It's a far reach for any of us to imagine we could be players, so questioning the decisions of the top superstars in the world is a bit of a fool's errand.

But criticize coaches … yeah, we can do that.

And so when the man on the sideline or behind the bench makes a decision, it is there to be scrutinized by all. It's part of the fun of following a team, it's one of the nuisances of taking the job.

The Stars are in the middle of some intriguing times, and that means there's a good deal of focus on the decision making of Rick Bowness. The veteran assistant coach was moved to interim head coach on Dec. 10 when the Stars fired Jim Montgomery. Bowness has said he felt a duty to take over at a tough time, and has pledged to do the best he can do. He lives that pledge every day.

Bowness is definitely old school. He believes in building a team and an identity and still is in the middle of that process. He has been here since the start of last season, so he definitely is carrying on the work that has already been started by Montgomery. At the same time, he's his own man and he has to put his own imprint on this team if he wants to be successful.

That's just the way these things work.

The head coach is a leader, and leaders have to lead. Bowness is trying to do that.

Now, his coaching style is communal, to be sure. He absolutely trusts assistant Jeff Reese with goaltending decisions. They talk a lot, but Reese typically makes a lot of the calls on what goalie plays when. He absolutely trusts Derek Laxdal and Todd Nelson to run the power play. He absolutely trusts Kelly Forbes with any replay decisions. And he absolutely trusts John Stevens to do the job Bowness was doing a few months back in running the defense.

Video: DAL@STL: Bowness breaks down Stars' loss in shootout

He wants everyone involved, because he believes that's what's best for the coaching staff and that's what's best for the team.

So as the Stars have tried to move forward under this new coaching staff, there have been adjustments. A team that is among the best in the league in goals against average also has had trouble scoring goals. Dallas is 24th overall in scoring at 2.69 goals per game and 29th in 5-on-5 goals at 107.

So, for the month of February, the Stars tried to address the lack of scoring.

They did a pretty good job, pushing their goals for average to 3.06 goals per game while going 9-3-3. The problem is they also saw their goals against average go up to 2.73 goals per game during the month -- and that's something the entire organization is discussing.

Can they maintain their identity as one of the best defensive teams in the NHL and also increase their scoring? Or does the pursuit of more goals create a trap of risky play that exposes the Stars to future problems.

It's why the question of playing young scorers more is more complicated than it seems.

As Bowness and his coaching staff have tried to get more minutes for Denis Gurianov (20 goals) and Roope Hintz (18 goals), they have changed the way they are doing things. Now, each game is an entity unto itself and minutes vacillate because of the amount of special teams play or whether the Stars are leading or trailing. But while some fans complain that Bowness isn't using Gurianov or Hintz enough, nobody seems to be concerned that Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov are down two minutes of ice time per game from last season.

Benn has played five of the past 10 games in the 13-minute range, while Radulov has played two games in that range since returning from injury.

The point there is that in juggling these balanced four lines, something has to give somewhere. If you stop playing the Faksa-Comeau-Cogliano line, the Stars seem to give up more chances. If you stop playing your highest paid players, that also seems like something that could have a negative impact on the team. If you stop playing the young gunslingers, you hear about that.

Bottom line, running this team isn't the easiest of jobs. Every move can leave ripples on the ice, and Bowness is trying to adjust to those ripples every game.

When all of the defensemen were healthy, Bowness was alternating Roman Polak and Andrej Sekera every other game. It was difficult for the two veterans, and Bowness said he felt their frustration. That's the human side of the game. You might sit at home and say it's Bowness' job to deal with that unemotionally, and you're probably right. That doesn't mean it's an easy call.

The same goes with making the right call in goalie selection. Bowness and Ben Bishop have been together for the better part of six seasons with Tampa Bay and Dallas. Bishop was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last season. So when fans speculate that Anton Khudobin should be given more starts, that's a tough call for the coaching staff.

But, as we saw Saturday, it was a call they made. Reese and Bowness decided that Khudobin gave them the best chance to win a big game in St. Louis, and they pulled the trigger. Some of you guys made that call a few days earlier, which shows sometimes fans can be ahead of the curve.

So we'll see if you get the extra minutes for Gurianov and Hintz, if the Stars can create more offense without losing their defensive edge, if we actually do have a goaltending controversy here. You might even see either or both of the two young goal scorers in the shootout going forward and be able to see if they come through in the clutch or not.

That's part of the fun of being a fan.

But understand that the decisions don't happen in a vacuum. Each call has been studied by the coaching staff and made for a reason. Just be sure to give credit for the right ones while you're pointing out the ones that might not have worked out.

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars battle the Edmonton Oilers when they return home to American Airlines Center on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. The first 5,000 fans receive a limited-edition poster presented by Dr Pepper. Get your tickets now!

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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