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Tale of Denis Gurianov is an intriguing one for Stars

From a fast track toward being an All-Star to sophomore struggles, the young winger has seen ups and downs

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Sports are hard.

They're hard to play.

They're hard to coach.

They're hard to watch, sometimes.

 

[READ MORE: Gurianov helps Stars flip switch in 4-1 victory over Blue Jackets]

 

Maybe that's why we get so emotionally involved, because we know how difficult it is to be good, how much thought goes into every decision, how you can think too much at times. Maybe we appreciate sports because we know how darn hard they can be.

That's why the tale of Denis Gurianov is so intriguing. The 23-year-old winger was on the fast track to fame and fortune last season, leading the Stars with 20 regular season goals and chipping in nine in a 27-game playoff run. He was the topic of discussion on many nights because he averaged just 13 minutes of ice time per game and still has the team's best goal scorer.

If he was just used properly, he might become a league All-Star.

Video: DAL@VGK, Gm5: Gurianov sends Stars to Cup Final

So fast forward to this season, and Gurianov did get an increased role. He was playing 17, 18, sometimes 20 minutes a night -- and yet he wasn't taking advantage. Instead of seeing his numbers go up, they started to go down. Instead of taking the next steps, he started to battle doubts in a pit of quicksand.

Coach Rick Bowness was asked about the struggles of his young winger on several occasions, and his answers were sometimes terse. Bowness basically said that the NHL is a "man's game," and you have to rise above mistakes and be able to play with a lot of pressure on your shoulders.

He's right about that.

Now, some fans were wondering if Gurianov was receiving extra pressure that maybe a veteran didn't receive, and the problem with that argument is the fact that every player is different and every player responds differently. Maybe a Blake Comeau or Jamie Benn mistake doesn't get called out because the coaching staff believes the veteran knows how to respond. Maybe the leash is shorter for younger players, because trust is such an earned commodity.

Comeau and Benn have earned the trust. Gurianov has not.

And to be fair, Jason Robertson didn't have that trust at the beginning of the year and Ty Dellandrea doesn't have it now. Robertson received a few healthy scratches after early mistakes. When Dellandrea missed coverage on a goal and took two penalties in a 5-1 win over Chicago, he got a trip back to the taxi squad.

That's the way of the NHL, especially when you're in a race for a playoff spot.

Video: Gurianov on scoring two goals in Stars' victory

So the fact that Bowness has stuck with Gurianov during a tough run is an indication that the coach wants him to get better. During a stretch in which Gurianov scored two goals in 33 games, Bowness played him more than 19 minutes a game on five different occasions. His time on ice went down for a stretch there, but he's still averaging 16 minutes a game.

I covered a story in high school where a parent was suing a school district because her son wasn't playing enough and it was costing him a chance at scholarships, according to the suit. The coach at the time told me that every coach's biggest goal is to win whatever game is being played, and if any player can help do that, then he's going to get the chance. That has stuck with me over the years.

All you have to do is talk to these coaches on a daily basis and see how much they try to get every advantage, how they try to hide information from the other team, how they think about nothing but trying to win the next game, and you realize that theory is bang on.

Now, the coach might make a bad decision, might overthink things, might read the situation wrong, but he definitely wants to win and he definitely will use the players that he thinks will help him win.

That's been in full view this year with Robertson. Bottom line, the 21-year-old helps you win. He battles for pucks, he anticipates passes, he shoots with confidence, he drives possession into the offensive zone. And he gets more chances because of that. He plays on the power play or in overtime or in the shootout. He has earned the trust of the coaching staff, and it's easy to see why.

On Wednesday, the Stars announced a two-year contract extension for defenseman Joel Hanley. He earned that deal. When Roman Polak decided to not return to play in the bubble last season, that opened a spot. When Stephen Johns got hurt, that opened a spot. Hanley, Taylor Fedun and Thomas Harley each got a chance to try to fill that spot. Hanley won. He was the better player, he handled the pressure better.

That's what Bowness means when he says it's a man's league. If you perform, if you are able to walk that line between intensity and calm, you are of value to your team -- and you will get opportunities.

Video: CBJ@DAL: Gurianov gets his own rebound and scores

On Thursday, Gurianov responded. He played with energy and focus and skill. He is a solid mix of size and speed, and we have seen in the past just how good that can be when he gets on a roll. He was on a roll against the Blue Jackets.

"That's his best game by far," Bowness said. "The thing we've asked of Denis is that you have to work, and you have to compete, and if you do those two things everything else will take care of itself. Everything will fall into line."

"He is a big, powerful guy, and I keep telling him that the last thing a defenseman in this league wants to see is you coming down on him full speed," Bowness added. "That's tough to defend. Tonight, he skated, and he competed, and he got rewarded for that."

Can he keep it up? The guess the coaching staff will give him a chance to do just that.

Gurianov has struck up a chemistry with Benn in recent weeks, so it will be interesting to see where that goes. We need to stay in game-by-game focus, but if indeed Tyler Seguin can come back, a line with Benn, Seguin and Gurianov would be an interesting complement to the line of Roope Hintz, Robertson and Joe Pavelski.

Ah, it's so easy to get ahead of yourself. That's another part that makes sports hard -- patience.

If you can stick with it during tough times, you really can get a nice reward. If both Denis Gurianov and the Stars find that out this season, maybe all the "hard" will be worth it.

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, and listen to his podcast.

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