Denis Gurianov: The Next Michael Grabner?

ELMONT, NEW YORK - MARCH 19: Denis Gurianov #34 of the Dallas Stars skates against the New York Islanders at the UBS Arena on March 19, 2022 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Denis Gurianov has the speed and skill to be a productive winger in the NHL. Despite a breakout performance in the 2020 playoff bubble, Gurianov has yet to take the “next step” and struggles with inconsistent play. While coach Rick Bowness and Stars management expect Gurianov to live up to his first-round draft pedigree, the team’s style may not fit into Dallas’ playstyle. Having watched both men play, Gurianov reminds me of a young Michael Grabner. They are both streaky point-getters that have breakaway speed.

The comparison is not an insult aimed at Gurianov. This piece is a plausible guess at how the 23-year-old can shape his career rather than bounce between the lower lines of a playoff team. Sometimes first-round picks don’t become 80-point scorers, and with the current top line the Stars have, Gurianov likely has no chance as a top-line winger.

Grabner had similar shortcomings with the Islanders, and a change of scenery re-established his value as a hockey player. Grabner and Gurianov have the same skill set, were drafted in nearly the same spot, and have almost the same amount of average ice time. Comparing the two players is not as farfetched as it may seem.

Grabner’s Career

Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2006 NHL draft, Grabner spent three seasons in the AHL before his first call-up to the NHL. After appearing in only 20 games in the 2009-10 season, Grabner was traded to the Panthers, then claimed by the Islanders during the 2010 offseason.

In his first full season in the league, Grabner scored 34 goals and totaled 52 points. He turned heads at that year’s All-Star game by winning the fastest skater competition, beating out eleven other players. In 2010-11, he scored only 20 goals and tallied 32 points for the season. The Islanders were in the middle of a rebuild, but that doesn’t excuse Grabner’s large point regression after just one season.

Grabner became a great option as a bottom-six player in his last three seasons as an Islander. He could get past the usual lumbering and hit-heavy players that hold a depth role using his speed. Grabner was also useful on the penalty kill, where his speed led to breakaway chances. During his last season with the Islanders, he scored two shorthanded goals on the same penalty against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Despite his success on the penalty kill, Grabner’s number declined, and not much changed following his trade to the Maple Leafs during the 2015 offseason. Grabner had a 40-point season in 2016-17 when he signed with the New York Rangers. He finished with the second-most goals, 27, on that rebuilding Rangers team. Unfortunately, the Rangers traded him during the 2017-18 season, with Grabner posting 31 points through 59 games. He only had five points in the 21 games he played with his new team, the New Jersey Devils.

Grabner signed a three-year deal with the Coyotes before the 2018-19 season. He missed 41 games after taking a stick to the eye. He played 46 games during the 2019-20 season, only registering 11 points. Grabner was bought-out that offseason.

Grabner thrived when playing on the top lines. However, he couldn’t consistently match his speed and puck skills and would be demoted once he stopped scoring goals. He could never recreate that first year on Long Island but was nonetheless serviceable on the lower lines.

His speed was a detrimental reason for his mid-first draft position. By his own admission, he was surprised to be drafted as the 14th overall pick. While he had some solid seasons, his best role on winning teams was on the bottom six.

Gurianov’s Disappointing Season

Denis Gurianov was a healthy scratch during a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on April 9th this year. The former first-round pick has wrestled with high expectations since the Stars made a miracle run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the bubble. Gurianov has been benched mid-game two other times this season. Coach Rick Bowness defended his actions by saying that Gurianov needs to play better and hasn’t shown enough to be in the starting lineup.

Gurianov is no stranger to being benched, as he has been taken out of lineups for inconsistent play since the 2019-20 season. Gurianov has posted virtually identical stats over the past three seasons. He has one point, an assist, in his last seven games, and he is not playing his best hockey right now.

If he scores a point over the Stars remaining nine games, he will break his career-high in points. While he had a four-game point streak in mid-November, Gurianov couldn’t breakout with that momentum. Of the games where he had more than 20 shifts, Gurianov only posted one multi-point game. Gurianov has been given opportunities but hasn’t produced to Bowness’ liking.

The most significant difference between Grabner and Gurianov is the grittiness needed for the lower lines. Grabner had the skills to play along the boards, where I feel Gurianov got buried on the lower lines. Gurianov has been more consistent as a point-scorer, but he hasn’t played up to his role on the second line. He also can disappear, even when given big ice time. Gurianov posted no points and took five shots in a 1-0 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on February 18th. Gurianov had 24 shifts in that game and 20:16 of ice time.

The Verdict

Denis Gurianov has to grow a lot to get where the Stars management wants him. Reflecting on his third benching of the season, Gurianov may need a change of scenery to unlock his potential. Michael Grabner serves as a compliment and a warning sign of his future potential. Grabner was highly-productive for most of the times he was leaned on offensively. He also had the puck skills to be effective on the penalty kill and was a solid bottom-six player.

Gurianov has had those opportunities over the past two seasons to perform, and his last-ditch effort to make an impact will be the 2021-22 playoffs — if the Stars can clinch a spot. Maybe Gurianov would be better on a more offensive-focused team, as Bowness has a system that relies on gritty lower lines. Gurianov is just 24 years old but has been a breakout candidate for the past two seasons.

On the flip side, Grabner was effective into his early 30’s, with an injury at 31 being a catalyst to further decline. Grabner was a journeyman traded to bad teams in the middle of a rebuild. Having that type of speed on the lower lines is an advantage, but there seemingly was a fragile line between quickness and point production.

In comparing these two players together, Gurianov still has a path to a successful career in the NHL. With the blame falling on sGurianov and Stars management for his lack of development, Gurianov needs to pivot and hone in on what separates him from the average player. As he finishes his third full season with the team, Gurianov has his future work cut out for him.

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