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What are the Canadiens getting in Denis Gurianov?

Dissecting the winger’s strengths, weaknesses, and why things didn’t work out in Dallas for the former first-rounder.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Montreal Canadiens David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

They said that it couldn’t be done, but Kent Hughes has managed to find a buyer for Evgenii Dadonov. Not only that, the Montreal Canadiens’ general manager has managed to secure a better return than the expected best-case scenario of a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick. Denis Gurianov may be arriving in Montreal as a reclamation project, a player with limited hype or expectation from the Canadiens faithful, but the 12th overall selection of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is far from a lost cause.

Patience was a big factor in Gurianov’s rise to prominence, as the player took five years to progress from draft selection to NHL regular. However, the 22-year-old rookie from Tolyatti, Russia took Dallas by storm when he finally arrived in 2019-20, putting up a team-leading 20 goals in the abbreviated regular season. He then followed that up with nine playoff markers in the bubble, helping the unheralded Stars make an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final. As that season came to a close, Stars fans saw him as one of the team’s best forwards for years to come — “all he needed was a little time.”

Unfortunately for the Stars and Gurianov, the next three years did not play out as hoped. He has struggled to rekindle the magic of his initial campaign, and with his point production declining year-over-year, the Russian has found himself left in the dust by the likes of Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson in the competition for top-six spots. Mired in the bottom six for much of the 2022-23 season and with only two goals to his name, Gurianov’s time in the Lone Star State finally ran out with a week to go until the trade deadline.

What, then, are the Canadiens getting in Gurianov?

The first important thing is to detach Gurianov’s value from Dadonov’s. To say that Habs fans were fed up with Dadonov’s performance this season might be an understatement. Many fans had even given up realistic expectations that the veteran winger could be moved, let alone for a tangible return. Yet Dadonov’s influence can be felt even after his departure, echoed in the sentiment: “Gurianov was traded for Dadonov, how good can he possibly be?”

This, of course, is deeply unfair to Gurianov, not only because he is his own person, but also because he, despite his meagre point totals, is currently a better player than his fellow countryman. Yes, Dadonov has more points, but Gurianov’s game is much more multifaced according to Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones player-tracking project.

In fact, Sznajder’s data gathering provides great insights on the strengths and weaknesses of Gurianov’s game. The 6’3” forward excels, first and foremost, at driving offence. He is one of the league’s better players when it comes to putting pucks on net and creating scoring chances. Unsurprisingly, the shoot-first winger is hardly a great playmaker, but he is one of the best in the league at creating deflection opportunities for other players — passing through shooting, if you will.

Gurianov is also exceptional at entering the offensive zone by carrying the puck, although he’s far less proficient at gaining the blue line via playmaking. He’s an adept forechecker and is reasonably good at securing offensive dump-ins. Perhaps most importantly, He enters the attacking zone with intent, with many of his offensive forays leading to scoring chances.

As for weaknesses, he has never been anything resembling a defensive specialist. However, while he struggled with defensive-zone exits in 2021-22, the newest member of the Canadiens has taken great strides this year when it comes to both defensive puck-retrieval and exiting his own zone with possession. It’s unclear whether that statistical trend reflects his personal initiative or is a by-product of a player adapting well to playing with checking-focused linemates, but either outcome remains positive.

Curiously, while his point totals have declined as his career has progressed, his underlying fundamentals have more or less remained unchanged. The Gurianov of three years ago was very much like the player of today: a shoot-first, offence-driving, zone-entry dynamo. The relative stability of his playing style — his on-ice actions, decisions, and interactions — therefore hints at external causes for his decreased presence on the scoresheet.

When it comes to offence, the Dallas Stars are a relatively top-heavy team. When Gurianov first joined the club, the team had a defined top line (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov), a defined fourth line (Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Andrew Cogliano), and a less-defined middle six. Two years later, that middle six had crystallized into a distinct second line with the emergence of Hintz and Robertson alongside Joe Pavelski. Gurianov was able to stay in the top six thanks to Radulov’s decline, but his claim was tenuous at best. This year, Ty Dellandrea and Wyatt Johnston have not only pushed Gurianov well and truly out of the top two lines, but they have even managed to make inroads into Seguin’s ice-time.

As a result, Gurianov has played the majority of this season alongside Mason Marchment (165:42 of five-on-five ice time) and Luke Glendening (134:22). Marchment is a good player who is too similar to Gurianov in that neither of them are particularly good playmakers. Glendening, meanwhile, just happens to be one of the worst players on the Stars roster.

The dynamics of this trio have radically changed Gurianov’s offensive style — much to his detriment. He, like most shooters, focused heavily on generating one-timers and just happened to be rather proficient at it in 2020-21 and 2021-22. This season, with no setup man on the line, his offensive approach has, by necessity, pivoted to generating chances through the cycle and forecheck. Accordingly, not only has his one-timer frequency dropped considerably, but so has his shot-generation off high-danger passing, as well as his deflection and rebound production.

Despite these less than ideal circumstances, he still appears to be doing many of the right things. He ranked third among Stars forwards in controlled zone entries and shots on goal, fourth in entries leading to scoring chances, and fifth when it comes to setting up scoring chances. The winger even remains middle of the pack when it comes to personal scoring chances and passes into the high-danger zone. However, he was struggling when it came to primary shot assists — that is, his passes are not leading to shots — and shots off high danger passes, either because he is not shooting or because the passes are not coming.

Ultimately, Gurianov appears to be a good north-south option, a player who can both shoot and carry the puck. He also appears to be surprisingly flexible when it comes to adapting to different playstyles and improving the defensive aspects of his game, although it remains unclear how much detrimental impact these adjustments have on his offence. Perhaps most importantly, the core fundamentals of his game have not changed dramatically despite the swings in the winger’s production.

He is one season removed from being roughly equal with Benn and Seguin in five-on-five point production. Can the Canadiens succeed where the Stars failed, and find a way to use the player that better emphasizes his strengths?

Why not? It’s been the mantra of the Kent Hughes/Martin St-Louis era so far.

All data is courtesy of HockeyViz, Natural Stat Trick, or the All Three Zones microstats project.