By Schuyler Dixon (AP Sports Writer)
DALLAS (AP) — First-year Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery called out the franchise for a ”culture of mediocrity,” led a feedback-sharing session with players and briefly benched one of his top-scoring forwards.
While they will never say Lites’ somewhat shocking comments about his highest-profile and most expensive players have anything to do with it, the Stars clearly are eager to escape a rut of missing the playoffs in eight of the past 10 seasons. Dallas has a precarious hold on one of the final two Western Conference playoff spots at the All-Star break.
”Right now we’re getting challenged as a group and individually,” forward Jason Spezza told The Associated Press. ”As a veteran guy, it’s exciting because it means they want us to push and they’re not happy with where we’re at. When you’re older, you’re trying to win now. You’re not really worried about the future. I like the way the message is going to help us win now.”
Perhaps it’s easier for Spezza to pick a word such as ”exciting” because the 35-year-old player, now in his 16th season, wasn’t the target of Lites’ rant late last month.
The longtime team executive sought out some of the reporters who cover the team regularly and used plenty of profanity along with ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of Benn and Seguin. Lites turned down an AP request for an interview Thursday.
Asked what he made of the events of the few weeks that started with Lites’ bombshell, Benn smiled through apparent disdain for the question and said, ”Nothing.” Seguin wasn’t available to reporters after the last practice, morning skate and game before the team’s seven-day break.
The day after the criticism from Lites, Benn and Seguin said they needed to play better while taking issue with some of Lites’ more pointed jabs. Both said they played for their teammates, not Lites.
”We’re trying to push the envelope,” Montgomery said. ”Everybody is, from their respective positions, and trying to make us better and trying to get more consistent at what we are.”
Three days later, Montgomery benched Alexander Radulov for the last half of the first period after the Russian forward said he talked back to the coach. In that 2-1 loss to the last-place Los Angeles Kings, the Stars came within 64 seconds of getting shut out in two straight games, both at home, for the first time in 20 years. He wasn’t very happy five nights earlier either after a second straight loss to an also-ran, 3-1 to St. Louis at home following a 2-1 defeat at Philadelphia.
The coach making the rare transition from college to the pros wasn’t scathing with his comments on the level of Lites, but his reaction was notable nonetheless.
”Two games in a row where we don’t compete at a level that is acceptable, and it is everybody and unfortunately, I am very frustrated that I have not been able to gain consistency in our performance and I haven’t been able to change the culture of mediocrity,” Montgomery said.
Lites picked Benn and Seguin because he believed they were underperforming for a team falling short of expectations, and because Lites said he had the support of equally frustrated owner Tom Gaglardi.
It also had a lot to do with money. Benn is on an eight-year, $76 million contract that started in July 2016, and Seguin signed an eight-year, $79 million extension before this season that kicks in for 2019-20.
While Benn and Seguin are tied for the team lead with 18 goals apiece, neither is in the top 40 in the NHL in points after both finished among the 25 best their first five seasons together. This is also the first time at least one of the two didn’t make the All-Star game since they’ve been teammates.
The timing of Lites’ comments was curious, with Dallas in the playoff picture and coming off a 2-0 win at Nashville that was notable for backup goalie Anton Khudobin‘s club record for saves in a shutout with 49.
General manager Jim Nill said he agreed with the message , although not with the use of profanity. Then came the “mediocrity” line from his third coach in three seasons .
”My biggest thing is, what’s our identity?” Nill said. ”We’ve seen we can be fast. We’ve seen we can be a heavy, hard team. Are we that? Or are we a mix of that? That’s what we have to find out right now. And it’s the consistency of the game.”
Consistency is what Montgomery seeks. The question is how many more times the quest will be displayed in such raw terms for everyone to see.
”I think it’s a coach trying to push buttons and trying to figure out how to get us from being the middle team to being a team that’s comfortably in the playoffs and looking for bigger things,” Spezza said. ”It wasn’t a shock at all to me because we all feel like we’re trying to push the right buttons to get this group to take another step.”