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.

Devan Dubnyk mired in worst slump since joining Wild

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When he joined the Minnesota Wild during the 2014-15 season Devan Dubnyk helped turn around what was quickly becoming a lost season. At the time of his acquisition the Wild were going through a brutal six-game losing streak, were under .500 for the season, and pretty much everyone around the NHL was waiting for then-coach Mike Yeo to take the fall for the struggles.

Instead of firing the coach, the Wild attempted to address what was at the time their single biggest issue — goaltending.

So they sent a draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Dubnyk, and in his first start with the team stopped all 18 shots he faced in a shutout win over the Buffalo Sabres.

From that point on the Wild were fine for the remainder of the season.

Dubnyk more than solidified the goaltending position, recorded a .936 save percentage in his 39 starts after the trade, finished in the top-five in Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy voting, and even won the Masterton Trophy.

In the three full seasons that followed he has been one of the most consistent and durable goalies in the league. He played at least 60 games each season, he never had a save percentage lower than .918, while his overall mark of .920 was sixth best in the league. His even-strength number of .929 was fourth best in the league.

He has been, by pretty much every objective measurement, one of the best goalies in the league.

That is what makes his current struggles for a suddenly-slumping Wild team so surprising.

After getting benched early in Minnesota’s blowout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night (he gave up three goals on the first six shots he faced) his season save percentage is down to .907, while he is currently mired in the worst extended slump of his Minnesota tenure.

Following that game Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said it would be sitting there and lying to say he isn’t concerned about Dubnyk. He also added he was concerned about a lot of players on the team, but that his goalie is definitely one of them.

Just how bad has it been for Dubnyk lately?

In his past nine appearances he has managed only an .857 save percentage, a level of play that has been unheard of for Dubnyk in Minnesota. It is not only his worst nine-game stretch since joining the Wild, it is rare for him to have a stretch of play where his save percentage dips under .900.

If you break the past four seasons down to nine-game stretches he has only been under .900 over nine games just 10 percent of the time.

He has been under .910 just 20 percent of the time.

That performance has played a big role in the team’s recent struggles.

The question is how much of a concern this should really be for the Wild?

On one hand, his recent track record is what it is. He’s been outstanding for more than three full years with the Wild, and he was probably a lot better than he got credit for when he was getting crushed behind some abysmal Edmonton teams.

But he’s also 32 years old, and there are a lot of miles on those tires, especially since becoming the starter in Minnesota.

Since Jan. 14, 2015 (when he was acquired) Dubnyk’s 253 games played are 14 more than any other goalie in the league, while only four others have appeared in more than 230. He has played more than 800 more minutes than any other goalie in the league and is one of only three goalies to face more than 6,800 shots (Cam Talbot and Henrik Lundqvist are the other two).

He’s faced 7,137.

That is a huge workload.

Given how good he’s been for so long it’s probably more than a little premature to suggest he is starting to break down. Especially when goalies are just like any other position in the league where players are prone to hot streaks and cold streaks. The NHL season isn’t about consistency for anyone; it’s about peaks and valleys where even the best players go through extended slumps. This is just one of the first times we have seen this extended level of play from Dubnyk in a few years.

But he is also not getting any younger and the Wild are still leaning on him pretty heavily.

If nothing else it is something to watch for the Wild as the season progresses because when he is at his best he is going to give them a chance every night. Lately, though, he hasn’t been at that level and it’s been one of the problems plaguing the Wild.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Stamkos, Giroux post four-point nights; Holtby blanks Blue Jackets

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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Two goals and two assists for Stamkos, who helped the Lightning crush the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 and win their sixth straight game.

Stamkos scored the first two goals of the game 10:10 apart in the first period and they proved to be all the Lightning needed in the win.

Stamkos has been his steady self all season and has 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games now.

2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed a win. They had just two wins in their previous nine games coming into Saturday.

With Sean Couturier out of the lineup due to injury, ‘G’ made the move back to center and thrived, scoring and adding three helpers as the Flyers picked on the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-2 win. The Flyers scored all six of their goals after the Sabres took a 2-0 lead. Giroux scored the winner in the third.

Giroux now has three goals and four assists in a three-game point streak.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby needed that one after giving up 10 goals over his previous two starts — both losses.

On Saturday, there were no goals given up in a 28-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets must be sick of seeing Holtby this year. In the spring, Holtby owned Columbus and he did so again on Saturday.

Holtby has two shutouts on the season now.

Other notable performances:

  • Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his point streak to 11 games.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
  • The Kings, as a whole, deserve mention. Drew Doughty‘s ‘pathetic’ comment seemed to spark his team. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves in a 5-1 win against the surging Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 35-of-36 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Louie Domingue had another solid outing, stopping 29 shots against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the night

Bob was pulled on the night, but not before making this ridiculous save:

Yikes:

Making dreams come true:

Patience is a virtue:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 6, Sabres 2

Kings 5, Golden Knights 1

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3

Senators 2, Penguins 1 (OT)

Islanders 3, Red Wings 2

Lightning 7, Avalanche 1

Rangers 5, Panthers 4 (SO)

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 0

Sharks 5, Coyotes 3

Flames 5, Predators 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Maple Leafs’ Hyman ejected after late hit on Bruins’ McAvoy

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We’ve already had one questionable hit on Saturday, and now we have a second.

This one comes at the mid-way point of the third period in the game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the Bruins leading 6-2, Charlie McAvoy gets the puck from Jaroslav Halak behind his own net and makes the pass to his defense partner. Hyman comes in at an angle where McAvoy can’t see him and drills him with a blindside hit well after the puck had made its way to the other side of the ice.

It appears that McAvoy hits his head on the boards the way down.

You can see the hit here:

The hit is made all the worse given that McAvoy just returned to the lineup on Thursday after missing 20 games with a concussion.

Hyman got a five-minute major for interference on the McAvoy hit, five minutes for fighting Bruins’ Matt Grzelcyk and a game misconduct. Grzelcyk was tossed, too.

The fisticuffs didn’t end there. A minute later, Chris Wagner got a penalty for charging Morgan Rielly which prompted Ron Hainsey to step in and fight Wagner.

McAvoy returned to the bench just prior to the game ending but did not take another shift.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Red Wings’ Kronwall delivers devastating, questionable hit on Islanders’ Lee

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No one walks the clean hit/dirty hit tightrope like Niklas Kronwall.

There are several montages on YouTube of Kronwall Kronwalling opponents. Some of them are hard but clean hits. Others are, well, questionable at best and there’s another one to add to that column from Saturday night.

With the Detroit Red Wings up 2-0 in the first period, Kronwall lined up Anders Lee of the New York Islanders, who was picking up a loose puck on along the boards in the neutral zone. Like many of Kronwall’s hits, it was a devastating thump.

Here’s the hit:

Lee’s head appears to be the principal point of contact and he was forced to leave the game.

UPDATE: Lee did not come out to start the second period but returned later in the frame

The comments section is going to be full of, ‘Lee needs to keep his head up.’

That is true. The player has a responsibility to protect himself.

But what is also true is this: Just because a guy’s head is down doesn’t mean there’s free rein to pulverize his brain.

Kronwall had some time to change how he was going to hit Lee, either the angle or the magnitude of the force of it.

Josh Bailey went for retribution later in the period, first getting a slew foot in on Kronwall and then fighting Dylan Larkin.

Lee leads the Islanders with 11 goals and is tied with Josh Bailey for the most points with 22.

Time will tell, but you have to imagine that George Parros and the Department of Player Safety will give this one a long look.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck