The Central Division is now between two teams, the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues. After the Stars swept the season series against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver Tuesday night, Dallas finds themselves 10 points behind the Blues in the standings. They are also ranked seventh in ESPN’s power rankings, which ultimately means nothing, but is a testimony to the team’s performance.
This season hasn’t been smooth sailing for any NHL team and especially not the Stars. They started the season 1-7-1 and had to navigate a hard turnaround to get back in the Stanley Cup Playoff race. They also dismissed tenured coach Jim Montgomery for conduct issues in the middle of a hot streak. But somehow, the Stars have found a way to make it work and interim coach Rick Bowness deserves a piece of the credit.
After the Vegas Golden Knights fired coach Gerard Gallant, social media went to a firestorm discussing the potential of the Stars hiring him as the new coach. Sean Shapiro of The Athletic addressed the potential change, reminding everyone that Bowness has an ‘interim’ tag on his title. Stars general manager Jim Nill said that the organization is committed to the current coaching staff for the season. However, conspiracy theories have Stars fans talking about Nill wanting to hire Gallant in the past. But Nill would be justified in sticking to his commitment and should at a minimum give Bowness the opportunity to finish the season.
Gallant has been one of several firings this season across the league. The Stars, New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Nashville Predators and now Golden Knights have made changes at the skipper position in the middle of this season. Gallant’s firing, next to Montgomery’s, might be one of the oddest of the year. The Golden Knights are on the hunt for a playoff spot in a highly-congested Pacific Division. Literally the entire division could look different in a matter of two or three games. His firing seems to center around multiple factors and some seem to be completely out of his hands.
“I was shocked like everybody,” Rick Tocchet said of the Gallant firing. “He’s a friend of mine. I mean, I think he’s a great coach. He did a great job in Florida and he did a great job in Las Vegas. I just know, for him, he’s a great coach. I feel bad for him.”from “‘It’s unprecedented’: Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet reacts to Gerard Gallant firing,” AZ Central, 01/15/2020)
However, one word sums up about half of the firing — underwhelming. The Golden Knights have been mediocre this season in 5-on-5 situations, their offense hasn’t shifted gears, and their goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury has been ordinary while Malcolm Subban has been worse. The Golden Knights have been an average hockey team this season, and Gallant couldn’t get them to the next level.
Bowness Stepped Up
Another reason Bowness should finish the season as bench boss is because the Stars haven’t missed a beat since the Montgomery firing. Since Dec. 10, when Bowness took over, the Stars are 10-4-1 and now are in sole possession of second in the Central Division. The Stars went on a six-game winning streak — the second longest of the season.
Bowness is also an outstanding defensive coach, which is what the Stars’ roster and game plan is built on. Since Christmas, no team has scored more than two goals on the Stars. Since his tenure began, the Stars have only allowed an average of 2.2 goals per game, tying the team statistic for the season. The Stars are also improving in other areas of their game, most notably the power play, but we’ll get more into that in just a second.
Stars Have Their Next Long-Term Coach
One of the most notable areas the Stars have improved under Bowness is the power play. The Stars are 8 for 17 on the power play since the Winter Classic and have found the back of the net in consecutive games. A large portion of the credit belongs to assistant coach Derek Laxdal, who joined the Stars from their American Hockey League affiliate in Austin after the Montgomery firing. Nill would be wise to recognize Laxdal as the next head coach in Dallas.
First off, Laxdal is a winner. As a minor league head coach, he has won three championships and has three additional finals appearances across the ECHL, AHL, and CHL. He also joined the Stars organization in 2005 and has worked with the talent that makes up the roster for years.
“He’s won at every level. He’s been very successful,” said Nill back in 2014 when Laxdal was hired as the Texas Stars head coach. “He’s still a young man, very energetic, his goal is to get to the NHL and this is the next stepping stone.”
Laxdal’s potential furthers the case to keep Bowness as the head coach. There is a grooming opportunity here. Coaches don’t just coach players, coaches also coach coaches. Bowness’ defensive mind and experience in the league are being passed down to Laxdal. When the time is right for Bowness to step down, that’s when the mentoring will pay long term dividends.
With the Stars pounding their way forward in the divisional race, Nill needs to stay the course with Bowness. Bowness has earned the opportunity and the future of the Stars could depend on it as well.