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Ken Hitchcock retires from coaching; who will Dallas Stars hire next?

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Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement from coaching on Friday after 22 NHL seasons and will now take on a role as a consultant with the Dallas Stars.

Hitchcock, who led the Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup and retires with the third-most wins all-time among NHL head coaches (823), had an original plan of hanging them up following the 2016-17 season with the St. Louis Blues. That didn’t happen as he was fired 50 games into the year, and while assisting other coaches around the league with X’s and O’s talks during his time away, a spark was reignited.

“They thought I was helping them but they were helping me,” Hitchcock said a year ago today during his introductory news conference when he returned to coach the Stars.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A multi-year deal was signed and Hitchcock’s plan suddenly shifted, but the move to an advisor/consultant role whenever he was done coaching was always in the cards. The Stars ended up missing the playoffs for the second straight season, a sign that a new direction was needed.

In a letter published on Friday, Hitchcock said his goodbyes, thanking the organizations he worked for and the people he worked with before acknowledging hockey fans.

“This great game does not happen without you. Every city I coached in, I was lucky to be surrounded by dedicated, knowledgeable, passionate hockey fans,” he wrote. “I enjoyed being behind the bench but I will miss walking the streets and seeing the fans the most.”

Aside from the wins and the Cup ring, Hitchcock, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, also won a Jack Adams Award and led teams to two Presidents’ Trophies. Internationally, he coached Canada to a silver medal at the 2008 IIHF World Championships and was an associate coach for the Canadian Olympic team five times, helping them to win three gold medals (2002, 2010, 2014). He also earned gold as an assistant for Canada’s teams at the 2002 Worlds and 1982 World Junior Championship.

Now that there’s an opening, which way will general manager Jim Nill go for a new head coach?

Alain Vigneault is a free man and was in consideration for the Stars job in 2013 before taking himself out of consideration to take the New York Rangers’ offer. Dallas would go with Lindy Ruff.

• Denver University head coach Jim Montgomery came close to landing the Florida Panthers job a year ago. “I’d never say never,” he recently told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. “But it would have to be a perfect opportunity for me and my family…. Denver is a great place to live, and I work for great people.”

Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson and Sheldon Keefe have all had varying degrees of success while coaching in the American Hockey League. Eakins and Nelson had brief NHL experiences as head coaches.

• Then you’ll have some usual names in the rumor mill when a job opens up like Dan Bylsma, Dave Tippett and Washington Capitals assistant Todd Reirden, along with any potential future firings that could happen around the NHL in the coming weeks (Bill Peters?).

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Friday, as the Anaheim Ducks host the Dallas Stars at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

PROJECTED LINEUPS

STARS
Jamie BennTyler SeguinBrett Ritchie
Remi ElieRadek FaksaAlexander Radulov
Antoine RousselJason SpezzaMattias Janmark
Gemel SmithDevin ShoreTyler Pitlick

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Marc MethotGreg Pateryn
Dan HamhuisJulius Honka

Starting goalie: Mike McKenna

[‘Resilient’ Ducks look to extend win streak vs. Stars]

WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET

DUCKS
Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry
Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg
Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase
Jason ChimeraDerek GrantJ.T. Brown

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour
Marcus PetterssonAndy Welinski

Starting goalie: Ryan Miller

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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.

Zach Parise notches pair, Wild down struggling Stars

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Four points separated the Minnesota Wild and two teams chasing them in the Central Division coming into Thursday’s action.

The Wild, who had lost two straight in overtime, weren’t in must-win mode by any means on Thursday. They’re holding down the third spot in the division and have for a while now. But the two points on the line would help them create some space between themselves and the idle St. Louis Blues (three points back, in the first wildcard) and the (also idle) Colorado Avalanche (four points behind, currently outside the playoff line).

So a 5-2 win against a division rival was just the thing the Wild needed against the Dallas Stars.

The Stars have lost nine of their past 10 games and have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the playoffs at this point.

Basically, for the Stars to make it, everyone else fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference has to lose and the Stars need to win their last four games.

They’re five points back with four games to play. For Dallas, it appears to be all over except for the mathematical formality.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Stars began the game on the right foot, with Jamie Benn scoring a quick goal 2:51 into the first period for a 1-0 lead.

Instead of building off that momentum, however, they let Minnesota score late in the period to tie it shorthanded, a goal that began a series of three unanswered from the Wild.

Dumba’s power-play goal to make it 2-1 was pretty, a clean one-timer that beat Kari Lehtonen with precision. Lehtonen struggled, allowing four goals on 21 shots.

Devin Shore brought the Stars back to 3-2 on a deft little top from the slot, the type of goal that could ignite a possible comeback.

But a late power play for Minnesota turned into a late marker for Jason Zucker, who made it 4-2 on a one-timer with 11 seconds left in the second period.

Devan Dubnyk made 29 of 31 saves for the win.

Parise scored his second of the game into an empty net to seal it for the Wild.


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

What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?

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Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.

Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.

They were at it again this past summer when they went big-game hunting and landed starting goalie Ben Bishop, free agent winger Alexander Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Marc Methot.

Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.

The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.

[Related: The Stars are winning another offseason, will the results follow?]

The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.

Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?

More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.

They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.

Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.

In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.

Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.

Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.

Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.

But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.

At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.

It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?

It is a question that is probably worth asking.

At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.

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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.

Stars’ John Klingberg benefiting from improved all-around game

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TAMPA — John Klingberg knows his name is in the mix for the Norris Trophy and he takes pride in that observers are noting how improved his all-around game has become since breaking into the NHL during the 2014-15 season.

It’s easy to see the offensive side of the 25-year-old Gothenburg, Sweden native. He’s hit double digits in goals in each of his first four NHL seasons and has six through 50 games this season with the Dallas Stars. Since his rookie season, Klingberg is third in the league among defenseman with 195 points and is fifth averaging 0.92 points per game.

What did Klingberg do differently over the summer to warrant such high praise? Not much, really. He trained in a similar fashion with his brother, Carl, who plays in Switzerland, Victor Svedberg of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs and Christian Folin of the Los Angeles Kings. It’s been more of a mental thing, he says.

“I just feel the whole team and myself have been really mentally prepared [since] summer to come into the season and really change things with how we want to be prepared as a team and how we want to play hockey,” Klingberg said during NHL All-Star Media Day. “From last year, it’s a lot of redemption with the disappointing season that we had and just coming in mentally prepared for this season.”

That mental prep has helped the Stars to the current wild spot they reside through 50 games. During the few days away from meaningful hockey games, Klingberg spent some time picking the brain of fellow Central Division All-Star Alex Pietrangelo, a fellow defenseman whose name has also been bandied about in the midseason Norris discussion. The Stars blue liner said he wanted to find out how Ken Hitchcock helped his game while coaching the Blues.

Pietrangelo evolved into a top defenseman and Klingberg’s entering that stratosphere. As his offensive game remains one of the best in the league among defenseman, he can sense his all-around game is catching up.

“I feel like my defensive game has evolved, but I feel right now the thing that has changed is that I’m making really good plays with the puck all the time,” he said. “I don’t get turnovers much and I don’t have to waste as much energy going back chasing the puck and playing defensively. I feel like I’ve been pretty good defensive player before that, I’m just not playing as much defense as I’ve done before.”

Klingberg’s offensive talents can be traced back to his youth when he started playing as a forward. At 15, he switched to defense, but the transition to the back end didn’t see the evaportation of those forward skills, which still help him today.

“You have the chance to make more skill plays when you’re playing forward and that’s something I brought to me when I played ‘D’ as well,” he said. “I didn’t want to change tactics too much. I didn’t think about it too much when I changed to ‘D’. But obviously that and playing pond hockey and playing street hockey in summers, that’s where you get all the skills.”

Klingberg was inspired as a young defenseman by Erik Karlsson. As both played in the Frolunda system, the Stars blue liner got to see the future Ottawa Senators captain on a regular basis, soaking in every aspect of his game. Karlsson would end up going in the first round in the 2008 draft, well on his way to an impactful professional career. Klingberg went in the fifth round two years later, but didn’t think the NHL was a realistic possibility.

“No, not at all. That was always the dream, but I knew there was always a lot of hard work ahead,” he said. “I feel like this is the first year I actually started to figure out how to play an all-around [game] and saving energy for playing that [many] minutes as well. That’s going to be a lot of credit to Hitchcock and how he changed my game — not a lot, just a little bit.

“It takes time to be a good defenseman in this league and I feel like I’m taking strides this year and I can only get better.”

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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.