Jim Montgomery on adjusting to the NHL, the Stars and his ‘process’ (PHT Q&A)

Jim Montgomery is going to miss Ken Hitchcock around the rink in Dallas. The Stars new head coach, who replaced Hitchcock in the offseason, spent plenty of time around the team’s old bench boss, soaking up his wisdom about the NHL. 

Working as a consultant for the team after “retiring” in April, Hitchcock gave Montgomery plenty of valuable information, which has come in handy since making the jump from the NCAA to NHL.

“His experience in the league, understanding travel, practice time and then understanding the people here, the players, and just him sharing what he thought the players were and what their maximum ceiling was and how to help them get there,” Montgomery told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday.

Hitchcock is back behind a bench after the Edmonton Oilers hired him to replace Todd McLellan. It’s his sixth job in the NHL and came only 221 days after his retirement announcement in April. He’s the definition of a hockey lifer.

“That’s right. It’s just in his blood,” said Montgomery. “Most coaches are like that but he’s probably the zenith of that description.”

We spoke with Montgomery this week about his transition to the NHL, how the Stars are adjusting to his “process,” and who really deserves credit for coining the “Legion of Doom” nickname given to the famous Philadelphia Flyers line of Mikael Renberg, Eric Lindros and John LeClair.

Enjoy.

PHT: We’re a quarter of the way through the season. How would you assess your team right now and where they’re at in terms of adjusting to your system?

MONTGOMERY: “I would say we’ve been very inconsistent, which I expected because it’s very different, the way I want us to play than the previous two coaches. Then you factor in this is their third coach in three years and they’re adjusting for the third time to a new system. I just knew it was going to take time, so I expected the inconsistency with the on-ice execution. The inconsistency in work habits and effort has been my biggest surprise to the job. I think the biggest pleasant surprise has been how all these guys are eager to learn and I haven’t gotten the testing that I expected. These guys are good people and they want to do what you want to do. We just need to change the culture of what our expectations of work is on a daily basis.”

How much of an adjustment has it been for you going from the college hockey schedule to an NHL schedule where it’s 3-4 games a week, almost every other night?

“That’s been a huge adjustment. As much as you try and prepare in the summer time and watch other teams and watch film every day, trying to simulate meetings, I did that for two weeks with the staff, nothing compares to the grind; because now you’re combining emotion, results, win, losses, trying to stay even-keel, dealing with players that are confident, players that aren’t confident on a daily basis, and trying to get them charged up again to feel good about themselves within 48 hours — sometimes 24.

“Hitch told me that once you get to the 20-game mark you start to get in a rhythm. I’m starting to feel I’m more in a rhythm of how to prepare, where to spend my time the most efficiently so that I’m not overtaxing myself. And thank God I hired great people in Rick Bowness, Todd Nelson, Stu Barnes and Jeff Reese to help me every day. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

I’m sure you had one of these as a player, but do coaches have a ‘Welcome to the NHL’ moment? Did you have one of those?

“Yes and no. I don’t know if that was it but when we played Toronto we were playing well. I talked to [Mike] Babcock after the game and he goes ‘You’ve got to be fearful in this league. Every day you’ve got to be scared because every day’s a new challenge.’ And he’s right because what I’ve found from that conversation is it doesn’t matter if you’re playing a team that’s in the bottom of the standings or the top of the standings. You might get their worst or their best, but really it’s about your own team respecting the league and respecting the opponent every night so that you play with fear.”

It’s a small list of NCAA coaches who made the jump to the NHL. You and Dave Hakstol are the only ones since the early ’80s. Why do you think NHL teams are skittish about going down that route?

“We’re getting the opportunities now because percentage of college players in the NHL has grown since I played [at Maine, 1989-93]. Most of the general managers used to be guys that came from the CHL. Now most of your general managers are coming from college-based backgrounds, a lot of them anyways. So that’s changed, and the youthfulness of the league. The young players you’re dealing with they need more information and direct communication and feedback. I don’t know if that’s millennials or just you’re dealing with the average age of a roster that’s much younger than it used to be 20 years ago. Your third and fourth line is not 10-year veterans anymore.”

At what point during your coaching career did you feel ready to make the NHL jump?

“I think after I won at Denver [2017 NCAA title] I thought I was ready. I was very fortunate to have a great job and I wasn’t going to leave unless I was leaving to work with the right people, and that means owners, GM and an opportunity to win because of the roster. I was very fortunate and lucky that Jim Nill thought of me to give me an opportunity to lead the Dallas Stars.”

Your “process”, which many learned about from The Coaches Site article you wrote in 2016, consisted of seven points. Did that need to be tweaked for the NHL level?

“Yeah, I moved it down to five because there’s so many games and with so many games you can only focus on so many things. I narrowed the focus down. When I had seven in college, I moved it from five to seven from junior where I coached 80 games a year with playoffs. I just thought that was the right thing to do and I knew which two were the least important.”

You spoke about the inconsistency in the Stars’ game so far. Do you feel your team is closer to hitting those five areas or is there plenty of work to do?

“Well, those five areas narrow your focus to concentrate on details within the game to possibly give you success. The numbers that we’ve worked out in the process, when we’ve hit the three most important ones we’re 11-1-1. It’s really not subjective. You can see it, the effort in those areas. Special teams is obvious. Three or less odd-man rushes is obvious, and winning the net-front battle is a little subjective, but it’s pretty obvious when you’re watching the game if you’re winning that.

“For the way I want our team to play, those are critical areas. Plus I want to be a possession team, so win faceoffs, and that’s team faceoffs. It’s within five seconds that we have possession, whether it’s a win or a loss. The last one is zero undisciplined penalties. We’ve gotten better in those areas but a lot of it is there’s so many teams bunched up because there’s so many games in so many nights that you can’t have your A-game. Where we’ve got to get consistent is valuing our details that allow us to have success on nights when we don’t have legs. That’s where we have, I think, not embraced the process enough.”

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Finally, you’re credited with coming up with the “Legion of Doom” nickname. Where did that come from? Were you a big wrestling fan?

“My buddy that I grew up with playing [midget] hockey and my linemate [Tommy Cacioppo] was a huge Flyers fan. When I was there I think we had just beaten someone 7-4 and I think the ‘Legion of Doom’ had something like 16 points in the game. He’s like, ‘You can’t stop them. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re skilled.’ I said ‘Tommy, I’ve got the best seat in the house. I’m watching them a lot from the bench.’ I said, ‘You’re doomed. They can beat you any way they want to, so you’re doomed.’ He was the wrestling fan. He goes, ‘It’s the Legion of Doom’ and I said it to a reporter and it took off.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Foligno, Lehner, Thornton are the 2019 Masterton Trophy finalists

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On Friday, the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced the three finalists for the 2019 Masterton Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks have been voted the three finalists after the PHWA’s local chapters submitted nominations at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters getting the trip to Las Vegas in June..

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Nick Foligno’s story: Foligno helped Columbus earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year by scoring 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 73 games, while simultaneously attending to health issues affecting two of his three young children. The Blue Jackets captain, 31, is skating in his seventh season with Columbus and ranks third on the club’s all-time goals (125) and assists (162) lists.

“I feel like we’ve become a stronger family and that’s how I’m always going to look at it. I think it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better leader, hopefully, for this team,” Foligno told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m going to take it all in stride, but my family is my most important thing in my life and (the Blue Jackets are) my second family.”

Robin Lehner’s story: Lehner (25-13-5 record, 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage, six shutouts) and teammate Thomas Greiss won the 2018-19 William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team allowing the fewest regular-season goals, helping the Islanders post their highest regular-season points total (103) since 1983-84. His best NHL season on the ice came on the heels of revealing addiction and mental health issues in a self-penned article for The Athletic during training camp.

“I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie,” Lehner wrote. “I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”

Joe Thornton’s story: Thornton, 39, overcame major injuries from the prior two seasons, suffering a torn ACL and MCL in both his left knee (2017) and right knee (2018). His rehabilitation work, detailed in the San Jose Mercury News, served as an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. The leader among active NHL players in career assists and points (413 goals, 1,065 assists, 1,478 points in 1,566 games), Thornton concluded his 21st NHL campaign with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games, helping the Sharks qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons.

Thornton scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 13 and passed a pair of NHL legends on April 4, leapfrogging Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) into 12th place on the all-time games list and Steve Yzerman (1,063) into eighth place on the all-time assists list.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Roope Hintz becoming important part of Stars lineup

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If you didn’t know who Roope Hintz was before the start of the postseason, you probably weren’t alone. But the 22-year-old has already found a way to leave his mark on the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With his team trailing 2-1 in the best of-seven series against the Predators, the young Finn scored a pair of goals in Dallas’ 5-1 victory over Nashville in Game 4. Even before scoring his first two goals of the playoffs, he kept finding a way to stand out for all the right reasons.

“He’s generating chances, and in Game 1, I thought he was the one that dictated our drive play to their net,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant, but last game he was very effective and (in Game 4) the puck goes in. It’s good for your confidence, but we know what he brings to our team.

“He’s a legitimate top six (forward) and he’s made our team have two lines.”

One concern surrounding the Stars is their scoring depth. Yes, they have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, but secondary scoring has been an issue in previous seasons. Hintz and veteran trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello have formed a nice partnership on the Stars’ second line. Together, they’ve combined to score five times in four games.

Hintz put up nine goals and 22 points in 58 games with the Stars during the regular season, but it became increasingly clear that he was getting more and more comfortable as the season wore on, as he managed to accumulate 17 of those points in the final 30 games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But his journey to being a second-line player for the Stars had its fair share of bumps, especially in 2018-19. Between Oct. 20 and Jan. 20, he was assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars three times. As disappointing as that must have been for him, it was probably for the best.

“You’ve got give credit to the staff there,” Montgomery said, per the Dallas Morning News. “Every time Roope went down, he came back a better player. … The last time he came up, he took his game to another level.”

The difficult part for him will be to maintain this level of play and production for the remainder of the playoffs, but he’s off to a very encouraging start. Even though the Predators are probably a deeper team, the Stars have found a way to make this a best-of-three series because of their power play and secondary scoring.

Let’s see if they can pull off the upset.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Held at bay, Gaudreau hopes to ignite Flames in Game 5

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DENVER (AP) — Summoning Johnny Hockey! His scoring prowess is required ASAP.

After a 99-point regular season, Calgary All-Star forward Johnny Gaudreau has been held to a single assist and just 12 shots against Colorado. It is a big reason why the top-seeded Flames trail the Avalanche 3-1 in a first-round series that heads back to Calgary for Game 5 on Friday night (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

Gaudreau’s linemates, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm, have been held in check, too, with a goal apiece. Even more, captain and Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano has two assists in the series. This after finishing second in scoring among defensemen during the regular season.

No panic, though. Just action.

”Everyone has to look at their own games and be better,” Gaudreau said. ”We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing all year.”

Either that, or summer starts early. The Flames are on the brink of being knocked out in the first round, just like Tampa Bay – the top seed in the East.

Dating to the expansion in 1967-68, there have been various playoff formats in the NHL from division-based, conference-based and for two seasons, ’79-80 and ’80-81, the top 16 teams being seeded by regular-season points. At no point over that time have the top two teams in each division or conference – or the teams with the two best records – been eliminated in the first round, according to the league.

”It will be tough. Obviously we’d rather be 2-2 than 3-1,” Lindholm said. ”Go back to Calgary, we have a good crowd there for us, try to come back and play even better than (Wednesday) and hopefully get a win. Then it’s game on again.”

The Flames don’t have a monopoly on vanishing stars in this postseason. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov had one goal and three assists between them in being swept by the Blue Jackets; while Sidney Crosby only had an assist as Pittsburgh lost four straight to the New York Islanders.

Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have been as advertised for Colorado. They have a combined six goals and five assists.

”Our depth,” MacKinnon said, ”is very underrated.”

In particular, J.T. Compher (two goals) and Matt Nieto (two short-handed tallies).

”They don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done all season, how much they’ve contributed,” MacKinnon said of Colorado’s supporting cast. ”It’s very encouraging that we can flip the switch. You don’t have to play a perfect game to win.”

Game 5 can’t get here soon enough for Flames center Mikael Backlund , who had a forgettable final flurry in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday. He took a late tripping penalty that led to Rantanen’s tying goal in regulation. In overtime, Backlund had a perfect view on Rantanen’s winning shot soaring right past him.

No time to hang their heads, though.

”We have nothing to lose now,” Backlund said. ”I don’t think a lot of people think we can do it but we can. We’ve faced a lot of adversity and if there’s any group I believe in and know they can do it, it’s this group right here.”

It starts with Gaudreau, who’s been bottled up in the series with Colorado clogging the middle of the ice. Gaudreau and his teammates just can’t seem to break free.

”We’ll regroup,” Giordano said.

Keeping them in games is goaltender Mike Smith , who’s stopped 99 of 108 shots over the last two contests.

”I’m just one little cog,” Smith said. ”It’s nice to have personal success but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

TORONTO at BOSTON (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The Bruins threw a wrinkle at the Maple Leafs by shuffling their lines. It did the trick during a 6-4 win Wednesday to tie the series at 2-2. David Pastrnak had two goals, while Brad Marchand added a goal and an assist.

Just the sort of boost the team was hoping for with Game 5 on Friday in Boston.

”We got some bounces” Wednesday, Marchand said. ”Hopefully we get them next game.”

The changes by the Bruins didn’t bother the Maple Leafs as much as miscues.

”I thought our matchups were fine. That, to me, wasn’t it,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”We just made some mistakes. Gave up some opportunities that we didn’t need to give up.”

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has already set aside the loss in which he surrendered five goals on 30 shots.

”Short memory,” Andersen said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for Flames

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Even though the Calgary Flames finished right at the top of the Western Conference standings, many hockey fans doubted whether or not they were a serious Stanley Cup contender. The reason for the doubt was pretty obvious, too. No one seemed to believe in either of their goaltenders.

Mike Smith and David Rittich both had difficult stretches at various times throughout the season. In the end, the Flames decided to roll with Smith in the postseason. The 37-year-old finished the campaign with 23-16-2 record, a 2.72 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage in 42 games.

The belief heading into the series was that if Calgary’s best players could score enough, they could compensate for the shaky goaltending. After all, the Flames had five players surpass the 70-point mark during the regular season. Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78), Matthew Tkachuk (77) and Mark Giordano (74) so offensive production wasn’t a worry.

But after four games against the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames now find themselves on the brink of elimination, and it’s not for the reason we all thought. They have to find a way to stay alive in Game 5 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)

Smith hasn’t been the issue at all. He’s actually been really good between the pipes throughout the entire series and if anything, he’s kept them in games. It’s their high-end offensive guys that have let them down. Gaudreau has one assist through four games and Monahan has a goal and a helper. That’s it.

Over the last two games, Smith has stopped 99 of 108 shots the Avalanche have fired his way. The fact that he’s faced that much rubber over the last two games is insane. Yes, that’s a lot of goals to give up over two games, but the team in front of him checked out in Game 3 and they blew a 2-0 lead in Game 4.

“It’s nothing personal,” Smith said after Game 4, per the team website. “It’s about the team winning. I’m just one little cog.

“It’s nice to have personal success, obviously, but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

The Flames are in must-win mode. We’ve already seen one no. 1 seed go down, so it wouldn’t be too shocking to see the top team in the West go down, too.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 5: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (series tied 2-2): It’s been a fierce battle between the top line of both teams. John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron have gone head-to-head a lot. In Game 3, the Leafs trio got the better of that matchup, but in Game 4 the Bruins’ top players took their game to another level. Who comes out on top tonight? (NBCSN, Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.