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Rick Bowness is out as Stars coach — what qualities should Dallas look for now?

The first and biggest domino of the Stars’ offseason fell on Friday when the team announced that Rick Bowness would be stepping away as head coach.

Bowness’ contract expired upon the conclusion of the Stars’ season so the team did not have to fire him, similar to the conclusion of the Lindy Ruff era in Dallas in 2017. After a meeting between Stars general manager Jim Nill and Stars owner Tom Gaglardi, the team decided it wanted to move in a different direction.

“Rick is one of the most respected and beloved individuals to have ever coached in the NHL,” Nill said in a statement. “His dedication and commitment to the game, and the impact that he’s made on countless players, coaches and support staff throughout his five decades in the League is unmatched. He has dedicated his life to our game, and we are honored to say that the Dallas Stars are part of his legacy.”

The Bowness era had many highs and lows, most notably a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. The Stars made the playoffs this season even though they wobbled down the stretch, and that late-season play may have best defined the Bowness era.

Chasing a playoff spot, the Stars beat the Golden Knights 3-2 on April 26 but only got two goals in the game, both from Jason Robertson. The Stars struggled greatly under Bowness to consistently score goals beyond production from the top line of Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski. Under Bowness, the Stars finished No. 30 in the NHL at goals scored per 60 minutes at five-on-five, their 2.13 mark just barely ahead of 2.12 by the Sabres and 2.06 by the Red Wings. Last season, the top line accounted for 45 percent of the Stars’ goals, rescuing the team from some devastatingly bad totals.

After a scoreless overtime in that Vegas game, the Stars went to a shootout. In the fifth round of that shootout, Bowness sent out checking-line center Radek Faksa to take the shot, while Jamie Benn, Denis Gurianov and Miro Heiskanen were options.

Lineup decisions were a constant topic of conversation with Bowness, whether it be healthy scratch decisions involving Jacob Peterson, Denis Gurianov and Thomas Harley or just the endless line juggling outside of the top line. Deployment was also an issue, as there was an overreliance on the team’s checking line, led by Faksa, despite it hardly being a shutdown line and providing zero offensive punch.

(via HockeyViz)

Faksa faltered in that shootout against the Golden Knights but Heiskanen made his shot in the seventh round while goaltender Jake Oettinger was a wall on the other end, stopping every shot through seven rounds. The Stars escaped with a win and clinched a playoff berth.

Heiskanen’s abilities and the team’s goaltending prowess, when the Stars would get it, masked a lot of issues that would usually fall on the head coach. Heiskanen has done about as much as one individual can do in a five-man unit to cover for deficiencies on the back end. For a team that boasted a defensive identity, there were too many times when the goaltender was asked to bail out the entire operation. It began with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin in 2019-20 and ended with Oettinger’s 64-save effort in Game 7 against the Flames last week.

Preserving a lead, and just play in general when the Stars got in front, also was a significant challenge under Bowness. The Stars’ defense under Bowness was quite remarkable, only allowing 2.19 goals per 60 minutes over his 176 games at the helm. It stands as the third-best mark in the NHL. But the play on the ice was dictated far too much by the scoreboard.

(via HockeyViz)

In some ways, Bowness was the right person to handle a lot that was thrown at the Stars, and the world at large, over the past two and a half years. Bowness balanced the human side of things with the players as they navigated through more than two months in isolation in the Edmonton playoff bubble and then a season of unprecedented adversity in 2021. There’s still the on-ice element of the job, though, and Bowness’ tenure left much to be desired there, opening the door for a new head coach in 2022-23.

We will soon discuss potential individual candidates, but first let’s look at some of the attributes the 10th head coach in franchise history will need to have.

A consistent offensive plan

The Stars have swung too far on each side of the pendulum in the past decade. Ruff’s Stars were all about putting on a show, scoring goals and producing an Art Ross Trophy winner while the goaltenders suffered from a lack of structure in front of them. Ken Hitchcock brought a sudden change to that philosophy, which was then carried on by Jim Montgomery and Bowness.

It’s important to have a defensive structure but there needs to be an offensive plan to accompany it. The plan cannot be to rely on defense turning into offense because that means you don’t control even your own offensive chances in how you get them and how frequently you get them. If the other team plays a clean game, rush opportunities will be infrequent and the game will carry on in stalemate and come down to essentially a coin flip. Instead of leaving the team’s fate up to chance, the Stars need somebody who will go and attack it with authority.

The offense also needs to have a sustained approach. Power-play goals and rush opportunities are not a way of primary offense; they are supplemental scoring. The team needs to create different avenues of scoring based on the personnel. The top line doesn’t need to be touched but, beyond that, there are different players who have different strengths they bring to the table. Creating a system in which each of those strengths can be maximized will be essential.

The Stars need to come away from the extremes. The need for offense should not result in a complete disbandment of defensive structure, but good defense should not result in the offense becoming a complete afterthought.

Fix the power play

In addition to Bowness, the Stars announced that assistant coaches John Stevens, Todd Nelson and Derek Laxdal would not be returning to the team. Laxdal was the team’s AHL coach when Montgomery was the head coach and was elevated to assistant coach in Dallas when Bowness took over. Laxdal was in charge of the power play.

The Stars’ power play got off to a great start this season and helped the team stay afloat while the goaltending carousel took place and the offense was even worse than it would end up being. In the second half of the season, and in the playoffs, the power play had fallen to dismal levels of ineptitude and played a big role in eventually sinking the Stars’ season.

While the lack of results from the power play was infuriating, the most frustrating part about it was the lack of adjustments. There would be an occasional juggling of personnel between the two units but it was hardly anything notable. Philosophically, the Stars looked to be trying to do the same things every time. By the end of the postseason, the power play had a checking-line winger in Michael Raffl on the second unit.

Dallas’ power-play quarterback for the last several years may not be back next season. If John Klingberg leaves, there will be options for the next power play coach. The top unit will almost assuredly feature Heiskanen, Robertson and Hintz. Tyler Seguin will fit in somewhere in the operation between the two units. Beyond that, there will be five spots that should be open for competition. There will be incumbent regulars in Benn, Ryan Suter and Gurianov, but Harley, Peterson and others will need to get a look as well.

Will the Stars want to go top-heavy and focus on making the first unit as powerful as possible or allocate the resources evenly? Will they attempt to have an ultra-aggressive approach or be more methodical? Either way, the power play can’t be the time for dumping and chasing the puck and creating a level playing field. You’re supposed to have the advantage on the power play and for too long this season, the Stars were either even or at a disadvantage when on the power play.

Personnel decisions

The Stars have a lot of roster spots filled but not a lot of lineup spots in ink. Robertson, Hintz and Pavelski will be the top line, Seguin will be the second-line centerman, Heiskanen will be the top pairing defenseman and Oettinger will handle the cage. Other than that, the incoming coach will have decisions to make on how he plans to use the resources at hand.

Is Benn a second-line winger or a third-line centerman? Is Suter still to be paired with Heiskanen? Is a designated checking line necessary? These are only some of the questions on the table. The other part of this is that there won’t be a lot of roster turnover, externally. The Stars don’t have the financial resources for that. Klingberg is a big question mark but other than that, there are only lower-level roster questions.

The Stars could be facing an influx of youth, both by merit and necessity. The Stars have some exciting young prospects who could be angling for NHL jobs in training camp. Management would love for them to force their hand so that there could be upgrades on entry-level contracts. However, the coach would also need to be comfortable relying on those players.

Bowness often opted for the veteran option over the younger option. While Gurianov became the example for this, that was less glaring than other situations because Gurianov, while young, was not exactly in his first go-around and because he bore a lot of responsibilities for his own shortcomings. But it was a questionable decision, late in the season, to not play Peterson because he was a rookie, despite him clearly being one of the team’s 12 best forwards. Despite Harley’s room for growth defensively, not giving him a look on the power play no matter how far the options dwindled also was a head-scratcher.

(Photo: Glenn James / NHLI via Getty Images)

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