When Rick Bowness was asked to take the reins for the Dallas Stars 11 months ago, nobody was happy with the circumstances — the team’s previous head coach, Jim Montgomery, had been abruptly let go. Now, coming off a Stanley Cup Final run, his interim tag has been shed in happier circumstances, with the Stars officially naming him the eighth head coach in franchise history on a two-year deal running through the 2021-22 season.
“It’s certainly a big honor for me. A couple of years ago, I came here for two reasons,” Bowness said. “First of all, you want to go to a team with an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. We certainly showed we have that capability. The second reason is, at this stage in my career, it’s important to work with really good people. The organization, with Jim (Nill) in charge of bringing in good people. You win with good people and we believe we have all of the ingredients here to take that next step and finally win the Stanley Cup.”
Things didn’t always seem they were trending in this direction. Goals were hard to come by early in 2020 and the team was on a six-game losing streak prior to the NHL stoppage that seemed indicative of another March collapse. At that point, chances of Bowness returning as head coach seemed slim. But Bowness was able to use the four-month season stoppage to take a step back and really put his stamp on the team.
“In the end, it was probably a blessing for us because it gave (Bowness) and his coaching staff a great chance to sit down, analyze our team, analyze themselves, “Stars GM Jim Nill said. “From there, we went into the bubble and that’s where we reaped the rewards of what Rick did.”
Now the Stars are banking on Bowness to bring some stability to the head coaching position, which hasn’t had the same man in charge in consecutive seasons since Lindy Ruff in 2016 and 2017. Dallas finished 2018 with Ken Hitchcock, 2019 with Montgomery and 2020 with Bowness. That continuity is especially important given the uncertainty of the league’s start date (the NHL announced months ago that the target date to start next season was going to be Jan. 1, but that date remains a moving target). Additionally, there is no clarity yet of when training camp would start, how long it would run and what kind of protocols would need to be adhered to for the safety of everybody involved.
The Stars front office wanted to retain the roster that was crowned Western Conference champs. That much was clear by the offseason re-signings of Radek Faksa, Anton Khudobin and Denis Gurianov, as well as a likely agreement with restricted free agent Roope Hintz. A depth signing of Mark Pysyk is the lone new blood injected into this roster. Now the coaching staff will all be the same as well, from Bowness on down to his staff of John Stevens, Jeff Reese, Derek Laxdal and Todd Nelson.
It only follows that Bowness would be back to lead them. Bowness also garners an unusual amount of respect, from the NHL family at large but especially in his own locker room. Time and time again throughout the bubble, leaders would make a point to say how players wanted to win for Bowness. Being a nice guy doesn’t automatically qualify one to lead an NHL franchise, but it certainly helps make a case stronger.“He’s a coach you just want to do everything for, lay your body on the line for,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said.
But this extension isn’t merely about convenience. The more Bowness got acclimated, the better Dallas played. That held especially true during the run to the Stanley Cup, when their style of play evolved, too. All in all, the Stars — who preached winning “2-1 games” and were defined by their goaltending — scored 2.85 goals per game in the playoffs (up from 2.58 GS/PG in the regular season) while allowing 3.04 goals per game (up from 2.52 GA/PG). The scoring has shown more than a few flashes of improvement and the goaltending is nothing to worry about with a superb defensive core and Ben Bishop returning healthy to form a lethal duo with Khudobin.
This isn’t to say Bowness is flawless and doesn’t have things to improve. First and foremost, he must find a way to get his talented young goal-scorers, namely Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz, the ice time their production warrants. For much of Bowness’ tenure as the interim coach, they remained in the basement of forwards in terms of ice time yet still managed to finish as the top two goal scorers on the team. Bowness’ explanation usually involved shifts vs. ice time or pointing to the players’ inexperience, but that all rings hollow in the big picture. If the offense is going to improve, especially in Seguin’s absence to begin the season as he rehabs from his torn hip labrum, it’s going to be because Gurianov and Hintz are a big part of it and moving towards realizing their full potential. Asking the old guard of Benn, Alexander Radulov and Pavelski to carry the load is unreasonable and frankly, unfair to them, and to the young snipers.
The penalty kill also regressed considerably after Bowness, who was in charge of the Stars’ penalty kill as an assistant to Montgomery, passed those responsibilities to Stevens. The Stars ended up missing a lot of key penalty killers to injury late in the postseason run, but even at decent health, the unit was not as sharp as it needed to be. That must be addressed.
Now in his fifth decade coaching in the NHL, nobody has spent more time behind an NHL bench than Bowness. Skeptics may point to his 143-310-48 record as a head coach, but context should be considered. His first shot came in Winnipeg, taking over for a fired Dan Maloney. He led Boston to the playoffs but was not retained and went on to become the first coach for an atrocious expansion Ottawa Senators team. His next chance was taking over for a struggles Islanders team and then the same story again with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Bowness has acknowledged in the past that, at 65 years old, his chances to lead an NHL franchise are dwindling. This very well may be his final shot. It’s also the best shot he’s ever had.