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'It's a process': Tough lessons all part of Stars' learning curve

For some, the pathway toward becoming a good player in the NHL can be long -- and confusing

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

FRISCO -- "The process" of becoming a good hockey player can be a long and confusing road.

For instance, dealing with a mistake in a game can actually get easier as you get older, and that seems to be counter-intuitive to the teaching side of the game. It would seem like mistakes from younger players would be accepted more readily than mistakes by older players, but coaches tend to cut more slack to guys they believe understand how to fix the mistakes quickly.

It's a philosophy that's pretty much shared by every coaching staff.

Stars forward Denis Gurianov had a bad breakout that led to a goal against in the Detroit game Sunday. He played one more shift the remainder of that game, was scratched the next two games, and was sent back to the AHL Friday.

It was a bit of a harsh lesson for the 22-year-old, who was drafted 12th overall by the Stars in 2015, but it was one that many others before him have had to learn.

"He's very similar to Roope Hintz," Stars coach Jim Montgomery said of the process that Hintz followed, ferrying back and forth between the AHL and NHL until he proved to the front office that he needed to stay with the parent team.

"He's got to go down and earn his way back, and he's got to become a confident player with the puck again. That's why he's gone down there, and we fully expect him to do that."

The strategy worked for players like Hintz and Jason Dickinson. It might be working for players like Nick Caamano and Rhett Gardner right now. It's tried and true in the NHL. But the Stars also have players such as Julius Honka and Valeri Nichushkin who didn't respond to the challenge and are no longer with the team, and those who have gone through "the process'' say it is indeed a tough way to learn.

Video: Montgomery on Dickinson's return, prep for Capitals

Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak was taken 14th overall in 2011. He bounced in and out of the lineup in his early years in Dallas and was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018. After 83 games with the Penguins, he came back last season in another trade. Now, he's a much calmer, more confident player at age 26.

"I think three or four years ago, I was playing not to make a mistake," Oleksiak said. "Now, I'm playing to win the game. I'm being a little more aggressive and I'm looking to make plays that can help the team."

But how do you get to that point? Isn't the fact teams are harder on younger players something that can actually hurt development? Couldn't there be a better way to help younger players develop?

"It's a process," Oleksiak said. "Experience is a huge thing. When you play in big games, you start to realize you can handle it. Then, getting the confidence, getting the coach's trust, there are a million things that go into it. It's a process, and once you get in the mindset that you can't be overthinking things, everything becomes better."


Stars forward Justin Dowling went through his process mostly in the minor leagues. The 29-year-old has played nine seasons in the AHL and finally looks like a roster regular in the NHL. He said he has had to learn how to manage mistakes, and that experience makes a great difference.

"Mistakes happen every shift of every single hockey game, so you start to understand that you can overcome them and you can stay calm and help your team," Dowling said. "The season is long, so you can't beat yourself up for one play. If you focus on that, it's just going to affect you moving forward, so the easiest way to move past it is to go out and do something positive."

Dowling on Tuesday took a late penalty when he swung at a puck and hit an opponent in the head. He then flipped a puck out of play Thursday and took a delay-of-game penalty.

While he stayed in the game, Montgomery said the coaches were aware of the mistakes.

Video: Dickinson 'ready to go' for Stars against Caps

Jamie Benn has also had some mistakes in games and has been moved to the third line or given fewer shifts. Montgomery said he sees every player differently, and that his in-game decisions concerning the lineup are weighed against his desire to win each game.

"It all depends on the situation, because the two players you mentioned -- Jamie Benn and Dowling -- when they have made mistakes in games where I didn't think they were playing well, they didn't go back out," Montgomery said, before referencing Thursday's loss to Calgary and his decision to go right back to Benn in key moments after he made a mistake that led to the tying goal.

"Jamie Benn was having his best game of the year, he takes full responsibility for their second goal, but he's a guy who can make you win the game, so I'm going to give him every opportunity to do that. Your `go-to' players, they hate it when they hurt the team and they want to respond and make it good again."

Plus, there are payrolls and playing roles that have to be considered.

Gurianov was sent back to the AHL because Dickinson is ready to return from an upper-body injury Saturday against Washington, and because Corey Perry is close to playing his first game in a Stars uniform (likely sometime on the upcoming four-game road trip). He could have stayed in the NHL while Nick Caamano, Rhett Gardner or Joel L'Esperance was sent back, but those players have earned the opportunity to stick around in the eyes of the front office and the coaching staff.

Gurianov has not at this juncture in the season.

That's the tricky part of "the process." It affects different players in different ways.

"Personally, I think I've matured a lot," said Oleksiak. "Certain things used to bother me, but they don't anymore. I think the key is to not think too much, prepare yourself well, and just trust your instincts."

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 DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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