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

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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.

The Buzzer: Oilers give Hitchcock winning start behind the bench

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: It was the captain’s second assist of the night that helped set up the overtime winner during a 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. It was his goal that started the scoring for Edmonton that was the 100th of his NHL career. With three points, McDavid now has 31 on the season.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers: Along with a pair of helpers, Draisaitl scored his sixth career overtime winner 51 seconds into the extra period. He now has 13 tallies on the year.

3. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: His goal early in the second period knotted the score at two and gave him three points in his last four games and 20 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• In his 230th NHL game, McDavid hit the 100-goal mark in his career. Per the NHL, he’s the second-youngest (21 years, 311 days) player to achieve the feat, behind only Wayne Gretzky (20 years, 40 days).

 

Joe Thornton’s assist on Marcus Sorensen’s goal tied him with Mario Lemieux (1,033) for 11th on the all-time NHL list.

Logan Couture notched his seventh on the season, thanks to a sweet dangle around Adam Larsson. He now has 19 goals against the Oilers in his career, the most versus any team.

Factoid of the Night

Per the NHL, “McDavid became the fifth different player in franchise history to reach the 30-point mark in a season in 21 or fewer team games and first since Mark Messier in 1989-90 (19 GP). The franchise record for fewest team games to record 30 points in a season is 10, a mark set by Gretzky in 1984-85.”

Tuesday’s result
Oilers 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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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.

Draisaitl, McDavid lead Oilers past Sharks in OT

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Ken Hitchcock’s debut behind the bench with the Edmonton Oilers was a winning one as they edged the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in overtime.

The win gave Hitchcock his 824th career victory, putting him 66 behind Joel Quenneville for second all-time in NHL history.

It was an impressive win for the Oilers who were playing for a coach who was hired 12 hours earlier. They went into SAP Center and didn’t allow the game to get away from them, overcoming three deficits en route to the two points.

Connor McDavid, who finished with three points, recorded his 100th career goal to open the scoring for the Oilers in the first period.

The score was even at two and was looking to stay that way heading into the final period, but Logan Couture took Adam Larsson to Dangleville with 56 seconds left to give the Sharks their third lead of the game.

But again the Oilers responded as Drake Caggiula’s seventh of the year would force overtime. It was there that McDavid, who played 23:57 and was double shifted at times, continued to be a force and helped set up Leon Draisaitl’s winner.

Edmonton now has two full days off before their next game at the Anaheim Ducks. That’s plenty of time to get familiar with what Hitchcock will demand out of them as they look to salvage their season. It’s a long road to where they want to get to, but Wednesday’s win was a good start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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: Oilers visit Sharks as Hitchcock returns behind the bench

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Ken Hitchcock makes his return to coaching Tuesday night hours after the Oilers announced that Todd McLellan had been relieved of his duties. There’s a lot to be fixed in Edmonton.

• After starting the year 8-4-1, the Oilers have lost six of their last six games, with all six losses coming in regulation.

• Edmonton is allowing 3.30 goals per game this season (t-24th in NHL)

• When Connor McDavid scores 2 or more points, Edmonton is 6-1-1

• When McDavid scores 1 or fewer points, Edmonton is 3-9-0

It’s a top heavy team, as evidenced by the 28 goals and 70 points recorded by McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The other 22 skaters? 29 goals and 81 points.

“It seems like when we get down we get down too much,” said defenseman Adam Larsson. “The lows seem to be really low right now. If we can just get that out of our game and keep it an even keel we should be good…it’s Game 20 and we’re right in the hunt. I don’t sense anything like the team we had last year. This is a hungry group.”

[WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks
Where: SAP Center
When: Tuesday, November 20th, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Sharks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS
Drake Caggiula – Connor McDavid – Leon Draisaitl
Ryan Spooner – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Alex Chiasson
Milan LucicCooper MarodyTy Rattie
Jujhar KhairaKyle BrodziakZack Kassian

Oscar Klefbom – Adam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Kevin GravelMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

[Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?]

SHARKS
Evander KaneJoe PavelskiJoonas Donskoi
Tomas HertlLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonKevin Labanc
Barclay GoodrowAntti SuomelaMelker Karlsson

Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

Randy Hahn (play-by-play) and Bret Hedican (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Oilers-Sharks from SAP Center in San Jose.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

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Continuing a staggering run of coaching changes around the NHL this month, the Edmonton Oilers put Todd McLellan out of his misery on Tuesday, replacing him with … Ken Hitchcock?

No, it’s not surprising to see McLellan out of a job; yes, it’s a little bewildering to see Hitchcock come out of “retirement” to get this shot with the Oilers. Will the gamble pay off, though?

Band-Aid solution?

At the moment, it seems like a short-term fix, which makes sense since Hitchcock is 66 years old.

Actually, it’s amusing to see several of the positive spins revolve around “hey, the Oilers put themselves in a great position to maneuver in the likely event that GM Peter Chiarelli gets fired.” It’s yet another painful reminder of how low the expectations have sunk for a team that employs hockey superhuman Connor McDavid.

In trotting out a longer argument for why Hitchcock was a smart hire, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector hit on a lot of the notes you’d expect, such as experience, which makes sense since Hitchcock is third all-time in coaching wins.

Of course, Hitchcock’s willingness to ruffle feathers is maybe the standout quality of this decision:

Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make.

Then again, one person’s “experience” is another person’s clue that someone might be behind the times. Being a “strict disciplinarian” can also mean that you’re making players miserable, and failing to connect.

Those who respond with something along the lines of “tough luck” or “rub some dirt on it” should consider that Hitchcock crashed and burned with the Dallas Stars, and saw his Blues teams mostly disappoint in the postseason. His lone Stanley Cup win came in 1998-99. McDavid was born in 1997. It’s tough to imagine many key Oilers being in awe of Hitchcock’s accomplishments if he’s barking at them over and over again.

Inconsistency mixed with incompetence

Let’s not forget, either, that many of these Oilers have been given a long span of instructions over the years.

To recap this run of ineptitude and misery, ponder this list of Oilers head coaches since 2009-10:

  • Pat Quinn (2009-10)
  • Tom Renney (2010-11 to 2011-12)
  • Ralph Krueger (2012-13)
  • Dallas Eakins (2013-14 to 2014-15)
  • Todd Nelson (remainder of 2014-15)
  • Todd McLellan (2015-16 until Tuesday)
  • Ken Hitchcock

That list is almost as embarrassing as Peter Chiarelli’s record of trading, or the Oilers’ run of biffing just about any prospect who isn’t a no-brainer. (That trembling you felt to the point of almost hearing was Jesse Puljujarvi‘s anxiousness regarding inevitable trips to Hitchcock’s doghouse.)

Diminishing returns?

The thing is, the disciplinarian angle might be where all the gains are made, because it’s really difficult to imagine that Hitchcock can get much more out of this team from a schematic standpoint.

The Oilers haven’t been an outright-terrible team from various puck possession standpoints, as you can see from sites like Natural Stat Trick. For the most part, Edmonton’s slightly positive in areas like shots for versus against, Corsi For %, and have generated a bit more high-danger chances for than against.

Could Hitchcock goose those numbers up a bit? Sure, but it’s difficult to imagine Edmonton making a quantum leap.

In other words, this isn’t exactly like the Penguins going from a stuck-in-quicksand nightmare of a bland team under Mike Johnston to an attacking team that accentuated its strengths (and survived its weaknesses) during Mike Sullivan’s best moments.

Instead, this feels like the Oilers are replacing a quiet, defensive-minded, somewhat old-school guy in Todd McLellan to … a defensive-minded, old-school guy who has a reputation for yelling a lot in Hitchcock. How much of a difference will that really make, aside from allowing people to soundtrack sad Connor McDavid moments with Simon & Garfunkel?

Bright coach, but more of the same?

Look, Hitchcock is a bright hockey mind. He really deserves credit for adapting to the game as much as anyone could reasonably expected, as he did particularly well when he experienced a lull between his time with the Blue Jackets and taking over the Blues.

Hitchcock had some fascinating things to say about the game back in 2012, as you can see from this piece in The Globe & Mail.

“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day,” Hitchcock said. “Not the game day, the next day.”

Again, it’s possible that Hitchcock could be a nice tactical upgrade over McLellan, for all we know.

Sometimes you’ll also see teams get a quick burst from making a coaching change, something that might be easier to see in a younger, seemingly less-optimized team such as the Oilers than an older team that might just be out of gas, like the Kings.

A bump for goalies?

One thing that could be intriguing: maybe Hitchcock could get Jake Allen on the right track?

Say what you will about the old coach, but several goalies have enjoyed their best years under his watch. Steve Mason was a sensation. Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts during one season.

(No, you didn’t just dream that back in 2008-09.)

Could this be a boon for Cam Talbot and/or Mikko Koskinen? Stranger things have happened, and if nothing else, Edmonton’s goalies should be motivated.

Chia’s growing mistakes

While it’s plausible that Hitchcock might find solutions where McLellan could not, this also feels like an organization stuck in its ways. Saying all the right things really rings hollow when Kevin Lowe is still receiving a high-level paycheck, and Chiarelli’s actions aren’t those of someone who’s learned from mistakes.

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said, via TSN’s Frank Servalli. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Chiarelli is allowed to keep swinging despite strikeout after strikeout. That defense that can’t pass well? He signed them, let Jeff Petry go, and believed guys like Kris Russell were the solution. Chiarelli hired McLellan. He thought Milan Lucic was worth adding, even if it meant trading away Taylor Hall. And on and on.

Now, Chiarelli’s gambling that a sage-like (but also sage-aged) coach can swoop in and save Edmonton’s season. Oh yeah, it also feels like a pretty slap-dash solution:

[Can the Oilers keep going on like this?]

Hitchcock’s walked into rocky situations before, and in several instances, he left them better than when he came in.

The Blue Jackets were a mess, and Hitchcock brought them to their first-ever playoff berth. He seemed to provide a nice boost to the Blues, at least in a brief way. He’s forgotten more about hockey than we’ll likely ever know.

This Oilers gig seems like mercenary work, and might be the toughest bounty this old hand has ever experienced. Hitchcock is bright enough to possibly make it work, but it all still feels like a longshot.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.