Montgomery steers Stars to playoffs in college-to-pro debut

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DALLAS (AP) — While the NHL buzzed in early January over the Dallas Stars CEO profanely ripping the franchise’s two best players, first-year coach Jim Montgomery worked to figure out how to make defense the priority for a team that was having trouble scoring goals.

Never mind that the former journeyman forward was also making the rare college-to-pro jump two years after winning an NCAA title at the University of Denver, and guiding a club that expected to reach the playoffs right away following a decade of mostly missing the postseason.

Fast-forward three months, and the Stars are preparing for a Western Conference first-round series starting Wednesday night in Nashville. And Tyler Seguin, one of the objects of Jim Lites’ ire, has been impressed by the stewardship of his third coach in three years.

”I mean, look where we are,” said Seguin, who was criticized along with captain Jamie Benn in somewhat shocking comments by Lites. ”He did such a great job not only with our team but individually in meetings. Getting the most out of each player individually, and it’s benefited all of us this year.”

Montgomery had a few strong words of his own not long after Lites used plenty of profanity along with ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of Benn and Seguin. The coach said he was frustrated that he hadn’t been able to ”change the culture of mediocrity.”

Through all of that drama, the Stars stayed in the playoff picture. Dallas never really lost its grip on a wild-card spot that was wrapped up with two games remaining in the regular season. It’s the club’s first postseason berth since 2016.

For that, the Stars credit finding, and sticking to, their identity – a strong defensive game in front of standout goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. As a result, Montgomery sees a team that’s better on the road and in the third period, and more consistent.

”We’ve been able to change our mentality and our idea of what work ethic is,” Montgomery said. ”We’ve done that all together. That’s the growth you want to see because that’s how you get everyone believing in it. Players have had ownership in it and so has the coaching staff.”

Both Seguin and Benn finished among the top 25 in the NHL in scoring in each of their first five seasons together. Neither did it this season. Seguin led the Stars with 80 points (33 goals, 47 assists) while finishing 28th in the league.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2017-18, Seguin had his first 40-goal season, but the Stars collapsed in the final weeks, getting swept on a six-game road trip while losing eight straight. This time, Dallas went 3-0-1 on a critical four-game Canadian swing that put them on the brink of a playoff spot.

”We thought we were going to score goals this year a little bit more and playing more of an offensive game,” Seguin said. ”But we’re a defensive team that’s gonna outwork and gonna outlast you. After the All-Star break, that’s what he talked to us about is, ‘What is our identity?’

”As a team and as a leadership group, we came up with it and went from there.”

Montgomery benched Alexander Radulov for a period after the team’s No. 2 scorer talked back to the coach during a 2-1 loss to the last-place Los Angeles Kings.

That setback capped the second of two season-worst four-game losing streaks about a month apart. The first was about two weeks before Lites summoned two reporters who cover the team regularly to unload on Benn and Seguin. The second was about two weeks after.

The turnaround started immediately after the second skid, in the first game before the All-Star break. And when Montgomery returned from the break, he said he intended to be more upbeat. Several times after losses, he said he liked the club’s direction, and its playoff chances.

A two-time champion as a coach in junior hockey and a two-time NCAA Frozen Four qualifier at Denver, Montgomery acknowledged that his first NHL experience was challenging.

”I didn’t know what the unexpected was going to be,” Montgomery said. ”And the unexpected ended up being some big moments. All those things have made us tougher. And if you’re tougher now, you’ve got to be tough going into playoffs or you have no chance.”

This rookie coach still has that chance.

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Will all this drama derail the Stars?

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The drama just never seems to stop for the Dallas Stars, although things do get kind of boring when this team actually tries to score goals. Worse yet, the Stars aren’t piling up PR losses alone any longer, as Dallas is now mired in a four-game losing streak.

The latest drama

Thursday presented the latest episode of “As the Stars Turn,” with embattled Stars coach Jim Montgomery deciding to bench Alexander Radulov – one of the team’s precious few actual scorers – for the remainder of the first period after an argument.

Such a tactic clearly isn’t about X’s and O’s, but instead about sending a message. If the message was sent, perhaps it was taken by carrier pigeon, as the results weren’t immediate. The Stars dropped a sad 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. During this span (all regulation losses), the Stars have scored a measly three goals. Total.

As Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News and others report, Radulov was able to cool off from his argument with Montgomery, eventually saying that his benching was “the right decision.”

Plenty of other people in the hockey world aren’t so easily convinced, and judging by Montgomery’s comments, even the coach might (deep down) have some second thoughts.

“Every decision we make is what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and at that moment, I thought that was best for the Dallas Stars,” Montgomery said. “When you’re struggling to score goals, it’s hard to do with a player of that caliber.”

In isolation, maybe Radulov did need to be reprimanded. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub. required) and others point out that Radulov had been drawing criticism for mental errors, including taking too-long shifts.

The questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds really pile up when you look at the bigger picture, though. And that picture isn’t pretty.

Passing the buck

Ever since Stars CEO Jim Lites absolutely trashed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn before the end of 2018, the Stars have suffered an almost unending run of embarrassing moments, and most of management’s wounds seem resoundingly self-inflicted.

After all, Lites went out of his way to throw Seguin and Benn under the bus, chiding bloggers to “write this!”

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of mistakes, and it doesn’t really seem like management is ever turning the discussion inward, at least on the record. Honestly, I almost picture Stars management transforming into Principal Skinner at some point.

Back in November, Montgomery discussed the Stars’ challenges in depth during a PHT Q&A, and it’s difficult to tell if anything’s changed for the better.

“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.”

All of the messaging seems to be about effort or “character.” Montgomery recently railed against a “culture of mediocrity,” but the thing is, that culture of mediocrity might just be plaguing the Stars’ front office more than the locker room.

This is a franchise that’s frequently failed when it comes to drafting, even whiffing on some crucial first-round picks. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t the ones who have bungled their way through a procession of three different head coaches in three seasons. GM Jim Nill and his staff were the ones who made mistakes like crossing their fingers that Martin Hanzal would somehow become a healthier player as he got older.

Maybe all of this bluster is an attempt to create a smokescreen around something that’s pretty obvious: management has failed to surround Benn, Seguin, Radulov, John Klingberg, and a few others with the proper supporting cast to succeed when they “don’t have their legs.”

Not hopeless yet

All things considered, it’s actually pretty amusing that the Stars would land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began today.

In fact, the Stars aren’t so far off from the Colorado Avalanche, who currently rest as the third seed in the Central Division (27-18-8 for 50 points in 47 games played, 21 regulation/overtime wins).

Sure, the West’s wild card races are starting to feel like that year in the NFC where the Seattle Seahawks made the NFL playoffs with a 7-9 record, but if the Stars can stumble their way into a playoff berth, maybe they should start to take a more positive approach?

After all, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s having fun. From a per-game perspective, the Stars are the third weakest scoring team in the NHL, but they’ve been able to grind out wins thanks to fantastic goaltending and pretty solid special teams work.

Walking such a tight rope can lead to frayed nerves, yet failing to support the players doing the balancing act may throw everything out of whack.

A four-game losing streak, and a tiny margin for error to maintain a playoff spot, sends a message. While management seems to believe that they need to push and humiliate their players, maybe they should instead provide them support with an upgrade in trades — and a pat on the back?

After all, their competition might be just as much of a mess, but they seem to get that memo.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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.