Apparently the net is going to be cast wide for a replacement for Ken Hitchcock. At this point just about anyone with a viable claim to an NHL job has been mentioned as a candidate. It’s going to be overwhelming for anyone trying to reasonably get a handle on where the Dallas Stars might go.
The plan here is to profile as many of the leading candidates as possible. In Sean Shapiro’s story for The Athletic Jim Nill laid out a little bit of what he wants in a coach. It sounds like he wants what he wanted when he hired Lindy Ruff: tempo, speed, and puck possession. At this point it should be clear that Hitchcock wasn’t a Nill hire so it should come as no surprise to see the pendulum swinging back to what Nill ideally wants.
Enter Jim Montgomery, the first candidate to be featured at Mooterati.
Montgomery had a 122 game NHL career that concluded with one game with the Stars in the 2003 season. His Wikipedia page has a few fun notes about him. He was once traded for Guy Carbonneau then released by the Montreal Canadiens after playing five games. He is also credited as the man who dubbed John LeClair, Eric Lindros, and Mikael Renberg the “Legion of Doom”.
What sticks out to me about Montgomery’s playing career is that he could really score. A lot. But, not in the NHL.
For the University of Maine, Montgomery registered 301 points in 170 games. That’s just absurd. In his final college season at age 23 (older, yes) he played with a rookie named Paul Kariya who had 100 points. Montgomery had 95.
Every year Montgomery played in the AHL or IHL he was a dominant offensive force. In 530 career games he scored 554 points. He strikes me as a guy who would have gotten more of a shot to produce in the modern era with eye popping minor league numbers like that. He isn’t a big guy either, listed at 5’10 and 170 pounds. Time on ice data is scarce until the last little bit of his NHL career, but it’s safe to say he never got much of a shot to produce.
His first head coaching job after his playing career ended was leading the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL In his first year he got his hands on Johnny Gaudreau, the under-sized star of the Calgary Flames
and 2018 Team USA Olympian.
In 2015 Gaudreau was quoted by Terry Frei of the Denver Post in a story about Montgomery heading into the NCAA Tournament:
“He really, really helped me out because he’s a smaller guy, too. He’s a great guy. He taught me about things you have to do in the game as a smaller player, and really helped me to get ready for the NCAA and then eventually to come on to the NHL. I think he was one of the coaches who helped me out the most.”
Gaudreau said Montgomery, who played 122 games in the NHL, “played back when it was a lot tougher for smaller guys in the league. He just taught me to down low, make sure I’m moving my feet and stuff, and keep my head up and make plays. He was really good for me there.”
Vice Sports did a feature on Gaudreau during his rookie season too. Montgomery was featured in it significantly. The focus is Gaudreau, but Montgomery is such a big part of the story that it works for our purposes here.
Gaudreau landed in the perfect spot when he left home before his senior year of high school and joined the USHL. Montgomery, his coach, had been an undersized player, too, playing parts of six seasons in the NHL despite being just 5’10”.
Guy Gaudreau believes it was the right fortune for his son.
“There’s coaches out there that would never have given him a chance,” he said. “He’s too small—there’s no need for him.”
Montgomery would go on to discuss what makes Gaudreau special.
“Johnny’s greatness—and it holds true at every level he’s been, including the NHL—is creativity and the ability to create time and space. The way he can read opponents’ sticks, hips and knees, to be able to go the other way on them allows him to do things that people didn’t think were humanly possible at his size in the NHL.”[…]
“He thinks the game and does things on the ice that not many players maybe outside of Patrick Kane and Pavel Datsyuk have the ability to do,” Montgomery said. “To say he’s a genius—and I’m talking just his creativity—people don’t understand how he keeps people back off. Because he doesn’t look like he’s a great skater but he’s almost like an aeronautical engineering genius on the ice because he understands triangles and he understands cutbacks.”
It seems pretty clear that Montgomery “gets it” offensively. Put your skilled players in a position to succeed and let them do their thing.
I just thought this was funny.
“What I said was, ‘Well if he is a third-line player, then you are going to win four Stanley Cups in a row,” Montgomery said. “His offensive game will evolve as his game matures.”
Montgomery always made his players fill out a goal sheet before the season and Girgensons always wrote that he would never “give up” or be “outworked.”
“And it’s true,” Montgomery said. “I saw him score a hat trick on a high-ankle sprain. When we won a championship, he was 16 and on the first shift of the game, his line started, and the way he skated, I said, ‘Oh, we are winning tonight.'”
With Dubuque he was finding the talent as the GM as well as coaching. Gaudreau and Girgensons fit the level of work ethic he pretty clearly wants. I like the goal sheet he had them fill out. I doubt that’s something that is done with professionals, but I like that effort he took to help his teenage players grow as adults. That’s the type of thing someone truly interested in teaching and developing would do.
At the University of Denver those attributes seem to be on display even more. The one consistent thing you hear about him and his Denver clubs is about how good the locker room is and how much the players love each other.
Two of the prominent players from his Denver teams were Will Butcher and Danton Heinen. Butcher refused to sign with the Colorado Avalanche after completing his college career, then promptly had 44 points as a rookie defenseman with New Jersey. Heinen has been great for the Boston Bruins, registering 47 points of his own while being good defensively.
Denver still has Henrik Borgstrom producing. He was the Florida Panthers first round draft pick last year. Anaheim Ducks pick Troy Terry produced at a similar level on his wing. I think the point is pretty clear by now. Montgomery develops and nurtures offensive talent on top of the locker room stuff you hear so much about.
If you’re the Stars isn’t that exactly what you want? Don’t you want someone like Montgomery to work with Jason Dickinson, Val Nichushkin, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov? How about Julius Honka and Miro Heiskanen?
The anecdotal stuff is fine, but how does he do it? What does he do that would translate to the Stars?
I pulled these gifs from Denver’s NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State in late March. The entire game is on Youtube. I planned to sit down to watch the entire game, track it, and make gifs throughout. I watched half of the first period and realized I’ve seen this before.
Denver is in the dark uniform. Notice how they circle back to look for a good opening to create an offensive opportunity. Puck. Possession.
They control their own blueline. In the 14 minutes or so I watched Denver forced 15 dump ins by Ohio State. They never allowed Ohio State to enter the zone with a pass, and only allowed them to carry the puck in three times.
Defensemen are key to what Montgomery does. They skate. They pass. They get the puck out of the zone, usually with possession. They exited the zone 22 times in the stretch I tracked. They only dumped it out four times. Nine times they carried it out and another nine times they exited with a pass.
More of the same:
I don’t know who this is, but watch the Denver player confidently skate the puck out of the zone through two Ohio State attackers.
Ohio State does adjust later and start generating more chances, but Denver hockey is pretty straightforward. Their previous game against Penn State is online too. It’s more of the same, but a quicker pace given that they are playing a weaker opponent.
Denver hockey is about keeping possession of the puck. Denver had a 56.5% Corsi For percentage in the 2018 season. The defensemen drive the play away from their own end. Butcher won the Hobey Baker under this system. How do you think John Klingberg would look? Or Julius Honka?
I can’t help but watch the Denver defensemen and think of Heiskanen.
Montgomery has been successful at every level. He was a dominant offensive player everywhere except the NHL. He has a proven track record of developing high end offensive talent and maintaining a close-knit locker room. His system looks like what you see in the modern NHL, and the Stars projected defense corps fits very well with it. Anything can happen in an interview process. There’s no guarantee he would be interested in the job or that the Stars are pursuing him, but you could do a lot worse than Jim Montgomery.