Hockey

We, and many others, have long lamented that NHL coaching and GM hires seem to come from the same shallow and brackish pool they have for decades. Once you get one job in the league, you get 17, as comrade McClure is often fond of saying. And with that, there’s always going to be a lack of new ideas and creativity. The league just keeps rehashing the same ol’ shit.

Of course, it would help if when the new blood do get a chance, they didn’t prove to be a complete pillock. David Hakstol flamed out in Philadelphia pretty hard. You’ve seen what Jeremy Colliton can do, or can’t. Guy Boucher was an original hire a while ago. He proved he could only trap and that worked for one season. David Quinn is currently fucking with every young kid’s head in New York.

So perhaps we should take some satisfaction that the one in Dallas, Jim Montgomery, has found a path to success. Whether it involves any original thinking is up for discussion, and we’ll get into that forthwith.

Monty came in with about as much pedigree as you can get outside of the league and paying your dues as an assistant or slogging in the AHL. He turned a good U. of Denver program into a power, with two Frozen Four appearances, one NCHA conference championship, and an NCAA one to cap it off. Denver did it with a swarming, up-tempo style, which he had hoped to bring to the Stars.

It didn’t quite work that way. The Stars were a middling team last Christmas, right around .500 and just kind of treading in the fetid water of the bottom rungs of the Central and West. From there until the end of the season, the Stars went 25-16-3 to get into the playoffs, where they then upended the Nashville Predators in the first round before taking the Blues as far as you can go without winning.

Sadly, Montgomery had to do that by turning the Stars into the most boring outfit around. From Christmas on, Dallas was the most defensively tight unit in the league. They had the lowest goals-against at even-strength, top-10 in expected goals against, all the while eschewing offense as they also had the lowest goals for at even strength. They were dull as shit, trapping the will to live out of everyone but their own players and fans. Which is all that matters, really.

But when you have one of the league’s best goalies in Ben Bishop, and really a plodding defense behind John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, and really only one line of offense, what else are you supposed to do? Montgomery fit the system to the parts, which must be really nice.

When a coach goes the Mourinho route, generally you’ll get results for a year because limiting things means you can get a coin to land on your side more often, and when you’re reducing chances and goals you’re basically turning more and more games into coin flips. Or more likely, teams in the middle of an interminable regular season just aren’t going to want to work through you, and you are more desperate because you need the results more. And then good results start to pile up, the confidence and belief in what you’re doing grows, and there you go.

But after that, players really don’t want to work that hard without the puck for very long. Not without at least getting to play a bit more and try and score a bit more and make games easier. You can only work in the gulag for so long before you spirit breaks.

It would appear Monty figured that out, too. The Stars started the season horribly, and stood at 1-7-1 after nine games. They’ve gone 12-1-1 since. And check out their expected goals numbers as the season has gone along:

They have opened things up, and traded a little security to allow Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Pavelski et al some more space. They’ve scored 49 goals during this 14-game spree, or just about 3.5 per game.

Now it’s not all that simple. Some is just luck. Tyler Seguin has been Tyler Seguin, but only bagged two goals in the season’s first month due to just rotten luck. Ben Bishop has posted a .942 in November. Heiskanen has eight points in his last four games. Players get hot, players get cold. But the Stars have also had to negotiate around injuries to John Klingberg and Roope Hintz, two big pieces. Maybe it evens out.

It at least feels like Montgomery knows which buttons to push and when to maximize what he has. And we look on with longing eyes…

Everything Else

A loss in double overtime in a Game 7. There is supposed to be glory about it. A beautiful death. Honorable defeat. Going out on your shield. Something to earmark and build upon. A loss, but one you can still hold your head high after when the cloud of shock and disappointment clear.

The thing is, that kind of glow requires that you actually try to win the game in the first 60 minutes, not have five Buddhas out there grinning childishly sitting on their collective ass while their goalie is fending off all sorts of threats and creatures by the minute. But that was the Dallas Stars method, who both tried to rope-a-dope and be-a-dope method last night and then were beaten by perhaps the biggest dope on offer, Pat Maroon.

It was all there for the Stars, whose entire style is basically push the dude over after he punches himself out. And there is no more push-over-able dude in the league than the St. Louis Blues. Game 7 at home and finding every way to not score, you could feel the DrinkScotch/Enterprise/Blue Live Matter Center accept their fate. They were going to lose after more than doubling the Stars in shots and almost tripling them in attempts. This was the way it had to be. This was nature. They could barely lift their arms anymore, struggling to breathe as most of their fans do.

But the push never came, as the Stars became so infatuated with short shifts they didn’t bother to do much other than just change on the fly. One player would hop over the boards, maybe get get to within touching distance of the middle of the ice, and then go fleeing back to the bench like a small child seeing how far away he can get from mom before he gets yelled at. Oh sure, they had their chances to win, but that’s the buy-in from the Blues.

So even in a double-OT Game 7 loss, you’d be hard-pressed to remember anything else about the series, the Stars playoff run, or the Stars as a whole. I’m fairly sure their coach is bald. That’s about all I can tell you. Because the Stars essentially became the energy vampires of the Western Conference and happily so. They straight up admitted to copying Barry Trotz’s system and then removing all the whimsy from that.

I guess this is what you do when your GM has had six years to get secondary scoring and has come up empty each time. Perhaps by sheer dumb idiot luck secondary scoring has landed on him through Dickinson, Zuccarello, and Hintz, but let’s not be too hasty. There are a raft of names before them that flashed being able to finally support the top troika of Radulov, Seguin, and Benn and his case of reverse-fear of heights. But they all slink back into the ether, unrecognizable from the other, trailing in Jason Spezza’s apologetic and wheezing wake. Which is how you end up with four goals in 10.5 periods over the last three games and packing for the summer. Which is pretty much how the Stars wanted it, fearing crossing the red line as if it was No Man’s Land. Happy in our trench are we, sang the green-clad throng.

Speaking of Jamie “The Retort To The Downward Spiral” Benn, you have to whisper this because he’s earned such gravitas with the hockey world thanks to always looking like the garbage bag busted all over his kitchen floor, but he’s starting his slide into Future Lucic state. Two goals in 13 playoff games, 53 points in a souped-up league, the lowest amount of shots in eight seasons. He’ll turn 30 over the summer, and the aging curve for power forwards looks akin to drunk dick. The cliff is coming for Jamie, and we know how he feels about going down. Soon he’ll have no choice. Dive for the crevice, Jamie.

The Stars will be confident is being right back here next season, with their hopes built in the sand of a 6-6 goaltender with various hip and leg problems who hasn’t taken a full slate of starts in four seasons. Seems real sturdy, that. Radulov will be 33, and even Seguin is starting to slide out of his prime years.

None of this might matter, as Jim Montgomery continues to abandon his principles to play a system that’s essentially singing campfire songs in a bomb shelter. The margins become so thin, and any long-term injury to THE BISHOP! can undo it all. The Stars could change this if they had any puck-movers on the back end…oh I know what you’re going to say, but it can’t be long before Monty’s system and Texas itself kills the spirit of Klingberg and Heiskanen. Didn’t they fire Hitchcock for this very reason?

This is about as good as it’s gotten for the Stars, and probably as good as it will. Two playoff series wins in 10 years, and both followed by Game 7 spit-ups. One conference final appearance in 20 years. Even the Blues have more, Dallas. Think about that for a second.

The Stars will continue their seeming never-ending journey to/occupation of the middle, that team you stumble upon on NHL Center Ice on a Thursday night and are surprised you haven’t checked in on in a while. Then after 10 minutes you remember exactly why that is. You will merely be intermission acts for Luka Doncic from here on out. Just like you were for Dirk. Maybe you can drop Hintz’s stretcher one day to get anyone to take notice of you.

It was there for you, Stars. Next time, try.

Everything Else

We’ve often bitched about the Old Boys Club that NHL coaches are chosen from. Same goes for GMs. It feels like you only get an NHL job if you had one before, or served as an assistant for years. We think the game could use new ideas, and they need to come from new places.

And yet those coaches picked from different places…it really hasn’t always worked out, has it? In fact, the success rate is pretty low.

Dave Hakstol flamed out in Philly pretty quickly. You can argue about the roster he was given, but no one with the Flyers or who follows them was too upset with his dismissal. At best, you can say the jury is still out on Jeremy Colliton. Remember Dallas Eakins? Boy, that went well. Guy Boucher turned out to be a fraud, twice. About the only coach who worked his way up through the levels and got his first coaching gig without being an assistant is John Cooper in Tampa Bay. It can happen, it just doesn’t all that often.

Jim Montgomery is a name that will get tossed out as a success. And on the surface, that seems correct. Montgomery had a glittering record at Denver University. Over five seasons the Pioneers went 125-57-26, made two Frozen Fours and collected a national championship. If any coach was screaming out for a promotion to the pro ranks, it was Montgomery.

And Montgomery has the Stars in the playoffs. They missed out last year. Except dig anywhere beneath the surface, and there isn’t much difference between the job Ken Hitchcock did last year, which everyone panned, and the one Montgomery is doing now.

The Stars could finish with a max of 95 points, which is only a small improvement on the 92 they collected last year. They could finish with less than those 92 points as well. That’s just a bounce here or there.

On top of that, by any measure the Stars are actually worse than they were last year. They take less attempts, and they give up more of them. They take less shots, and give up more of them. Their expected goals, or types of chances, they both create and surrender are both headed in the wrong direction. The difference is that Ben Bishop has been way better, as they had an ES SV% last year of .925 and this year it’s .934. That’s a difference of about 20 goals just at even-strength, which is about four or five points in the standings. The other difference, of course, is that the conference is so much worse.

The Stars have roster flaws of course. There’s only one line here. They’ve been racked by injuries, as Radulov, Benn, Klingberg, Bishop all having missed time. Maybe for Montgomery to have their peripherals where they are is something of a job. Hard to say, though.

Perhaps hockey is more like football in that the transition from college to pros is just rougher than you’d think. Maybe it’s a path that needs to be more well-worn. It’s also worth noting the Denver has rolled right along without Montgomery, into the Frozen Four again. But those are his kids there, so we know he can recruit. Sadly, that doesn’t do much for you in the NHL.

If the Stars get Montgomery a second and third line, then we’ll see what he’s made of. If they can make noise in the playoffs and Bishop is injured we’ll know. But until then, maybe the exclusive club isn’t as bad as we thought.

 

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You have to hand it to the Dallas Stars. It seems every couple of seasons, maybe more often, they’re ready to shed their skin. First they were going to be the Run n’ Gun n’ Fun team under Lindy Ruff. Then when that didn’t go anywhere they were going to be a more solid unit under Ken Hitchcock that took its limited opportunities while boring the lower intestines out of everyone. And then that didn’t work so they went outside the box to the University of Denver for Jim Montgomery. And lo and behold…they’re on pace for the same 85-92 points they seemingly always get and never go anywhere. They’re just south of the Wild in the consistency standings, and right there with them in the “Never Do Anything That Matters” standings. Kind of symbolic.

While Jim Nill always wins the Best Offseason GM Award, nothing ever seems to really change on the ice when the season starts. The thought was that Hitchcock was too conservative for the modern game, and that he didn’t really get through to younger players who want to get up the ice more often and faster than Jabba The Hitch would ever be comfortable with.

And yet so far this season, under the supposed forward-thinking Montgomery, the Stars get less attempts, less shots, less goals, and less chances than they did last year under Hitch. They’re not even getting as good of goaltending as they did, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re on pace for 89 more irrelevant points as a team that neither makes them a contender or puts them anywhere in the draft to make a difference next year.

So what’s the problem here? It’s not the top line, which has produced every year as long as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have been together. Now they have Alex Radulov joining the fun. It’s not the goalies, as Ben Bishop has a .920 this year and has been more than solid in his time in Texas.

So scrape beneath that just a bit, and you see the young players that the Stars have pinpointed and hoped would pick up the secondary scoring, and you start to find some answers.

Devin Shore: Second round pick in 2012, point-per-game or thereabouts for three seasons in the NCAA. Had injury problems in his first season as a pro in the AHL but still was a point-per-game when he was around there. Has put up 24 goals and 55 points in two NHL seasons and this year is on pace for…the same 13 goals and 32-ish points that weren’t enough to be a second line player in the first place.

Radek Faksa1st round pick in 2012. Impressive numbers in junior. Good enough in his first season as a pro to spend half the year in Dallas. 17 goals last year in his first full-season in the NHL, looks set for bigger things. On pace for barely 14 goals this year while only just averaging a shot-on-goal per game.

Mattias JanmarkPicked up from the Red Wings in what was thought to be something of a steal. Very good numbers in Sweden. Went from 15 goals to 19 goals last year and looked to be a genuine second-line player. Has two goals this year and like Faksa, is barely registering a shot per game.

Brett Ritchie2nd round pick in 2011. Two-time member of Canada’s WJC team. Bounced between the AHL and NHL for a few seasons. Put up 16 goals last year in his first full foray into the big-time. Has two goals this year and is basically a 13th or 14th forward.

Val Nichushkin: Looked to be a real ass-kicker in his rookie year with 14 goals in ’13-’14. Missed almost all of the next year with a terrible injury, never really looked recovered the next season, fucked off back to Russia for two years, and has yet to score this term.

Honka! Honka! (Julius Honka): 1st round pick in 2014. Tore up the OHL in his one year there. Always thought that Ruff and Hitchcock wouldn’t give him the time of day because of just being a young d-man. Has four points this season though with some promising underlying numbers. Stars needed him to push the play beneath John Klingberg and especially in his absence. Hasn’t really happened. Now behind Miro Heiskanen on the depth-chart

And once again, the Stars are a top line, Klingberg (when healthy) and that’s it. They hope they’ve cracked the code on defense with Miro Heiskanen, and maybe they have But until they finally produce a second line from somewhere, they seem destined to be scenery in the Central Division.

 

 

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Taylor is the editor-in-chief at DefendingBigD.com. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorDBaird.

The Stars switched from Ken Hitchcock to Jim Montgomery before the season. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed from the two coaches, other than the team playing hockey that doesn’t feel like an existential crisis?

It’s hard to tell what Monty wants this team to be as they’ve been absolutely devastated by injuries on the backend. They’ve been without John Klingberg for 6+ weeks, longer for Connor Carrick and Marc Methot. Stephen Johns has yet to play a game this season. At one point, 12D on the depth chart was playing in the top six at the NHL level. That is…less than ideal. They’ve been one of the best defensive teams even with all those injuries, so it’s safe to say being responsible in their own end is part of the identity. The offensive side of the puck is less clear, as Dallas relies on their blue line to generate offense, and with that position decimated by injury…

Seems like everyone is awfully excited about Miro Heiskanen down there…

All aboard the Heiskanen hype train! He looks like a veteran out there, and as he’s been thrust into a 1D role with all those injuries, he’s only grown in confidence. He has the trust of the coaching staff and is a big part of the Stars being a top 10 PK team. His game is already close to complete, and he’s drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer. He’s only 19.

The Stars have been waiting for a bust-out from the likes of Faksa, Janmark, and Shore for what feels like forever. Is this all they are by now?

Maybe? Faksa seemed to have a bit more spark when he was shifted to wing last game, so maybe his scoring comes back a touch. He’s still one of the best shutdown forwards the Stars have, and having a guy that’s been in the discussion of Selke nominations last season is not anything to sneeze at. Janmark and Shore are likely what they are now, though if they had a more shoot-first linemate maybe they’d find some apples more often as they both make some good plays.

Tyler Seguin‘s shooting percentage seems to have cratered. Just bad luck or is there something in his game?

He’s having the worst of luck. He’s not going to shoot at a career low percentage for too long. He’s due for a hot streak, and there’s no better time than the present to get that going with Dallas finally getting some time at home instead of spending like 30 of 52 days on the road or something.

 

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