5/3/18 – Process and Puck Posession of Jim Montgomery

Two things should always be kept in mind when it comes to the Dallas Stars.

You never have any reason to trust anything that comes out of Jim Nill’s mouth if it’s about potential moves, and you should never pay much attention to media amplified coachspeak.

Coachspeak is that generic string of words a coach lays out for media or other outsiders that doesn’t really tell anyone much of anything. It isn’t a lie, but it doesn’t enlighten discourse in any way. It isn’t intended to either because it isn’t for anyone outside of the locker room.

Coachspeak doesn’t even tell players much specifically. It’s a series of mantras intended to trigger memories of how a coach wants players to play or specific traits they need to remember to project outwardly. Every coach does it on every level. We call it “their message”.

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

You know, the good stuff.

Soon-to-be-named Stars Head Coach Jim Montgomery has his own mantras. We’ll surely get to know them well over time. One aspect of his program is his “process” that we’ve seen discussed often since the news of his imminent hiring started to leak. He detailed it for The Coaches Site.

Monty

Those seven items are…something.

If were four out of seven in a game, were probably going to win that game. And if weve got five or six, the games actually become lopsided in our favour. Like I said, its simple.

Number one, two, and four stick out quite a bit here because Montgomery has been billed as a possession-focused modern coach. His teams racked up the Corsis in the NCAA so a focus on hits and faceoffs and blocked shots seems surprising because of how relatively insignificant they are to winning hockey games.

I settled on these seven because they give the team a clear understanding of what to do when it comes to the small details of the game, and it will lead to big results.

Then it starts to make more sense.

Its about keeping things simple and boring, really. Simple and boring work well in sports. Through my playing career, I noticed that if I thought about simple things, small details about my game, I usually had really good games; when I worried about the big things like results, I played nervous and didnt play well.

Coming up with the process was a way for me to relate to my team about what will give us success. When were playing bigger games, we always come back to the process and it allows us to play consistently in the big moments when the pressure is on. We always say, were about the process because it keeps things simple.

…It helps with the mental component, toowhen moments get big, we talk about staying in the moment and focusing on our process. We should be focusing on our next shift, or the next face off. The simplicity of the process allows our players to mentally lock in.

Breathe out of your eyelids. Don’t think meat, pitch. This process he lays out is much more of a mental trick to help players focus. If you look at each of the seven they’re mostly vague and hard to measure outside of hits, odd man rushes, and the 60% faceoff goal.

So these are small things that help players focus on smaller aspects of the game, but what does the overall picture look like from his mind? Fortunately a video is floating around out there if you want to get a free trial or subscription to The Coaches Site. I did because I was curious after seeing that is was titled “Puck Possession”.

Ok, now we’re speaking language that sounds more like what I’ve seen in Denver video, and that reflects the numbers his teams put up.

The video is 31 minutes long. It contains a brief Q&A after 25 minutes of him speaking about the intricacies of how he coached Denver up. It includes slides stating the principles he follows offensively and in transition plus video clips of his team executing.

I pulled all of the slides and interesting quotes of his from throughout.

He started off with a bang.

If we feel like we possess the puck for 60% of the game we’re going to win at least 80 percent of our games.

And how does he envision doing that in general?
Slide1

What Montgomery did throughout this video is that missing piece that we don’t see as outsiders. He went into detail about how he teaches his team to get and maintain possession. That starts with a strict focus on skaters protecting the puck and winning puck battles.

He then spent time going over faceoffs, but we’re here for the sauce.

Slide3

Penetrating the dots is quite the #HockeyAfterDark way to say generating scoring chances.

And we must end up penetrating inside the dots. It’s great to possess the puck outside the dots, but if you’re not generating scoring chances then that’s the number one telltale sign for us when we do our analytics. We do scoring chances after the game, and we want to know how many we’re generating inside the house compared to our opponents. And usually if we have a big advantage there we win the game quite handily.

If you generate more scoring chances than your opponent you tend to win games. I’ll be damned. This was the first of many instances where Montgomery indicated how important it is to him to create meaningful offense.

Slide4

“If you can breakout through the middle you’re gonna have success.”

The keys to everything he wants his teams to do come from the blueline. It seems like the clear focus for him will be coming up through the middle instead of up the boards constantly like the Stars did under Ken Hitchcock.

We want to preferably break out through the middle because that’s where we feel you gain the most speed at the other team’s blueline.

And oh my sweet lord this quote:

We want players that want the puck, and you gotta demand the puck.

He then illustrated how this looks with several clips, but this one impressed me with how quickly his guys moved the puck.

Breakout 64.png

It’s about making a pass to get to the next layer, and get past the forwards to create odd man rushes and easy entries.

Easy entries? What a nice thing that would be to see.

Now we move to the neutral zone. Montgomery has already mentioned speed a couple times. He does here too.

If you can carry the puck in with speed into the opposition’s end, D-zone breakouts and neutral zone counters are the two that create the best scoring chances.

He has two neutral zone schemes he likes to follow. The first one he took directly from the Chicago Blackhawks.

Slide5.jpg

If you’re looking for more promising signs of his focus on offense, he shared his thoughts about how the forwards should be thinking in the neutral zone.

They have to have some creativity to read open ice and trust their offensive instincts.

The other scheme he calls Climb, but he took this one from the Los Angeles Kings.

Slide6

Taking cues from two of the best possession teams of the decade seems like a splendid idea. This scheme has all players below the blueline with the defenseman bringing the puck forward, or “climbing”.

You really have to teach your defensemen to be patient so you can expose and create open ice.

John Klingberg, Julius Honka, and Miro Heiskanen. Inject all of that into my veins.

We haven’t even gotten into the offensive zone yet. When he finally really started talking about offense he began by referencing Wayne Gretzky.

Sure.

Slide7

For us, we call it the Gretzky cutbacks and delays. The best offensive mind ever, I think he introduced this. I think the Russians were doing it way before Gretzky introduced it to everybody, but I think you’re crazy if you don’t learn and teach what Gretzky did.

He went on to explain what the significance of the cutbacks and delays can be offensively.

The most important thing is when he pulls up or does a cutback, you don’t always have a play to make. When we talk about puck possession at Denver, if we can’t make a play we’re going to put the puck to the goal line. And we always have a middle lane drive that is going to the strong side post…Every defensive team is the most vulnerable when the puck is behind the goalie because all eyes and stick positioning and feet positioning are most vulnerable if you can create puck possession behind the net.

Once they get the puck behind the net the offense kicks in. Montgomery referenced being in a triangle down low, and moving the puck low to high frequently. If they move the puck from low to high then the defensemen are a critical part of the offense.

Slide9.jpg

The defensemen have to be involved to keep the puck moving and create mismatches. The Stars absolutely have the personnel to make this work.

So, that got longer than I expected. In short, I’ll let Montgomery sum up what he has going on.

“We feel that in this day and age to score goals, you have to empower everyone to do it.”

He has his “process”, but make no mistake this is about offense. Denver attacks the net and protects their own so naturally winning net battles will happen. I don’t know how they ever got 50 hits in a game honestly.

When he says that Denver would win four of those pieces of the process, 3-7 are almost certainly the most commonly won pieces, but even then they aren’t the ultimate goal of what Montgomery wants. He wants his teams playing offensive hockey, but he wants them to focus on details so they don’t get lost in the moment.

It probably isn’t worth worrying that he’s out of touch with modern hockey. He pretty clearly gets it, even if the note about hits is a little troubling.

“If you don’t have any questions it looks like we might be able to hit the beer earlier.”

Yeah, he’ll probably fit in here.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s stupid. Let’s calm down.

5/3/18 – Dallas Stars Go Full Monty

I had to get that out of my system early. Apologies.

The Dallas Stars time-consuming exhaustive search for the successor to Ken Hitchcock is finally over…after less than three weeks. Jim Montgomery will be leaving the University of Denver to fill the Stars head coaching vacancy with an official announcement and press conference on Friday. The vague press release was sent within the past hour.

Montgomery was the first head coaching candidate profiled by Mooterati, and apparently the only one needing a profile. I imagine we’ll hear a lot more on Friday, but he must have wowed the Stars to a considerable degree to lock the job down as quickly as he did.

This is an interesting hire for the Stars. They could have gone the conservative route by hiring a coach with NHL experience. Alain Vigneault is sitting out there fresh off of being fired by the New York Rangers, and he was a main contender for the job in Dallas when Lindy Ruff was hired. Instead, they chose to step out of their comfort zone.

Names like Willie Desjardins, a former Stars coach, and Derek Laxdal, current coach of the Texas Stars, were connected to the position through the media. Bill Peters, now of the Calgary Flames and an ex-Detroit Red Wings assistant coach, was an early candidate. All would have been “safe” hires of guys with obvious connections to the team and general manager.

Other candidates existed who wouldn’t have been standard Stars hires, such as Sheldon Keefe, Todd Richards, and Pascal Vincent. The easy route is to hire the guys you know, but it isn’t always the best. Montgomery may not work out, but the fresh blood and different perspective he can bring to what the Stars do is something they can really use.

From the outside looking in there are three keys to this being a successful hiring.

Player Development

Montgomery has a strong record of player development. The Stars have young talent, but all too often the youth hasn’t been able to take that next step. College hockey is largely about development. Montgomery should be more of a development-focused coach than his predecessor.

Organizational Continuity

One aspect that bugged many about the 2018 season was that the organization seemed disjointed. Hitchcock played who he wanted to play. Nill held on to promising young players like Julius Honka and Gemel Smith despite toiling away in the press box or with low minutes. Everyone seemed to have a different goal to the very end.

Montgomery and Nill should be on the same page. Hopefully the system Montgomery wants to play in Dallas is extended to Austin too so young players can easily step in when needed. Continuity is vital.

A Modern Game

Ken Hitchcock talked a good game when he was hired, but it didn’t come together. The Stars spiraled into a team that settled for chipping the puck out of their own zone and dumping the puck in offensively. You never would have guessed that they claimed to want to play with speed by New Years.

Montgomery’s teams focus on moving the puck quickly from the defensive end. Watch Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils. The Stars have these guys in place already with John Klingberg,  Honka, and soon Miro Heiskanen. Watching them have the freedom to carry the puck up the ice should be treat. Ditto Stephen Johns.

I’m not ignoring the process stuff. We’ll get there.

 

4/27/18 – Judging Performance From Single Data Points: Dallas Stars and Toronto Maple Leafs Edition

The Toronto Maple Leafs got bounced out of the playoffs in game seven the other night by the Boston Bruins. Everyone from Mike Babcock to Auston Matthews to Jake Gardiner is taking a lot of heat.

Gardiner sounded legitimately emotional after a tough night.

“Personally, I got to be better. A lot of this game is on me,” said Gardiner, the posterboy defenceman for risk-reward.

Gardiner’s voice quavered. Tears coated his eyes. He exhaled deeply.

“It’s just not good enough, especially in a game like this. It’s the most important game of the season, and I didn’t show up, so… there’s not much you can say really.”

Nick Kypreos got both Babcock and Matthews at the same time.

Last year, and going to this year, Matthews was the guy, and toward the end, Babcock lost Matthews. I don’t know what happened but he lost him, and there was no trust anymore. And then, Matthews can’t start a hockey game, and he can’t start a period, he can’t start a power play off a TV timeout, and for whatever reason, Babcock lost Matthews, and that played a key part. Now, he’s injured, and that of course you have to consider, but I just watched [Matthews’] body language throughout the last few games here, and going into the regular season, and you’re sitting here going, ‘That’s more than the injury; something is not right here with Matthews,’ and I think that needs to be addressed as well.

If you were on Twitter prior to the past week you are already well aware of the general feeling of unwavering almost obnoxious optimism surrounding the Leafs’ Stanley Cup chances. Fast forward to game seven and a flawed team that didn’t have to fight very hard to get into the tournament got eliminated by a superior opponent.

And the world is now ending.

The star-level player the Leafs tanked so hard to acquire is being criticized hard, some of which is fair. The highly compensated coach brought in to instill a winning culture is being raked over the coals with people just now noticing that his teams haven’t done much in the playoffs in a while. And poor Jake Gardiner who was great all season is taking a bath because of one poorly timed bad game.

Nothing about sports is really black and white. Yet, when the Leafs drop one game to the Bruins now it’s time to question everything. What happens if they had won that game? Do those questions become less important? They shouldn’t become less important if they are legitimate questions, but I think we all know how that would have turned out.

Emotion can be a powerful motivator, good or bad depending on the circumstances. It clouds our decision making ability. A burst of emotion one way or the other can lead people to conclusions they wouldn’t make if they were thinking in a rational way. This one loss, at the end of an otherwise largely successful season, doesn’t undo what the Leafs did. It doesn’t tell us much of anything about the work Babcock, Matthews, or Gardiner did over the course of the full season. It’s simply one very visible data point out of thousands of pieces of data.

The Atlantic ran a story about the impact of emotions on decision making in late 2016.

Where fear breeds uncertainty, anger instills confidence. Angry people are more likely to put the blame on individuals, rather than “society,” or fate. Anger makes people more likely to take risks and to minimize how dangerous those risks will be. Other researchers have shown that angry people rely more on stereotypes and are more eager to act.

Emphasis added.

Sometimes bad things happen. Or, to quote Auston Matthews, shit happens.

Society always tends to want someone to be held responsible whether logic dictates that anyone should be or not. We need a pound of flesh to satisfy our anger and the most visible targets are the low hanging fruit we reach up to grab.

This is all pretty standard, especially in a market like Toronto. The older I get the more it irks me. I grow to loathe the phrase “sports is a results-oriented business” and all related iterations of it more and more every year. No shit? How many businesses aren’t results-oriented?

Results are always necessary, but part of the problem is that the only results anyone wants to focus on are wins and losses. Ultimately it’s only possible to win or lose a game, but the growth and development of everyone involved is a desirable result. It just isn’t something easy to grasp so it can be more difficult to gauge.

With the Dallas Stars seeking a new head coach this problem pops up. How do you compare the win loss record of Jim Montgomery with that of Sheldon Keefe? How much credit does Montgomery get for identifying and helping Johnny Gaudreau develop? Does Keefe deserve much credit for implementing a plan with the Toronto Marlies that seems to be more or less laid out by the big club?

The same problem arises in education. In courses that culminate with a STAAR exam the results of that exam are all that really matter to many people. Allegedly that exam has all of the information needed to see how good of a job a teacher did working with a student. K. Tell me what happens when a student is absent, refuses to take it, or finishes it in 30 minutes, or has a reading disability, or doesn’t understand the references made in a question.

School districts realized that made little sense so they shifted to “growth”. Then they realized most subjects don’t have STAAR exams so some teachers had to make up their own exams used to judge their own professional growth which was predictably gamed by some. Even now growth is measured between Geometry and Algebra or from World History (10th grade) to US History (11th grade) which…ok? Good luck with that.

Any one data point is going to be very unlikely to give a full view of the performance of an individual regardless of the industry. The STAAR scores of my student won’t say much about me. This one loss doesn’t invalidate Mike Babcock or Auston Matthews or Jake Gardiner. The win loss records of Jim Montgomery and Sheldon Keefe in lesser leagues don’t automatically mean either or both will be good NHL coaches.

Bill Peters likely would have been a fine hire for the Stars despite his NHL record. Many metrics work in his favor, and he didn’t have a choice about who the Carolina Hurricanes put in net. Keefe and Montgomery have a lot going for them too. Todd Richards or any of the other number of candidates will have their own selling points to push.

However the Stars decide to fill the vacancy we won’t be able to judge the hire for several years, and even then the win loss record will be a poor way to do it. Success is more than just wins and losses and the emotional response pulled out of a loss easily clouds our view of a coach.

Good process can lead to undesirable results. If the Stars follow a good process you can’t really ask for more. As Matthews said, shit happens.

 

 

4/20/2018 – Former San Antonio Iguana Bill Peters

Jim Montgomery and Sheldon Keefe give the Dallas Stars two very high quality candidates for their coaching opening. Neither one has any NHL coaching experience though, unlike our candidate today.

Meet Bill Peters, who is as of this moment the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. He has until Friday to opt out of his contract. It, uh, doesn’t sound like things are going well in North Carolina.

Bob2

Bob2

I think the words “hot ass mess” may apply here. I can’t imagine the Dallas job being wrapped up by Friday in any way, so it seems really unlikely that he will ultimately be the guy here unless Dundon fires him. Plus. it sounds like the Calgary Flames are close to finalizing a deal with him to bring the Alberta boy home.

Peters has a Texas connection though.

Carolina coach, Bill Peters, once ran the hockey program at the Crystal Ice Palace, the small ice rink in northwest San Antonio. Peters played one pro game, with the San Antonio Iguanas, and scored a goal and two assists as a replacement player. He drove the Zamboni and kept the palace running while his wife went to med school here.

One game? Replacement player? I needed more info.

The Alberta native also came to the Iguanas’ rescue one Saturday in January, 1995. With the team decimated by injuries and suspensions, the Iggies signed Peters to a one-game contract to play against the Dallas Freeze. San Antonio coach John Torchetti had planned to use Peters only as someone to serve penalties (which he did) to keep enough bodies on the ice, but then something crazy happened.

The Iguanas led 8-1 after two periods. With the game in hand, Peters took a regular shift in the third period and set up two goals and scored himself before the game mercifully ended, 12-3 San Antonio, an Alamo City record for most pro goals scored in a game by the home team.

One classy note on Peters’ goal… with time running down, Peters and Dale Henry came in on a 2-on-1 break. Peters passed to Hank who had an open shot and could have scored the hat trick, but instead he slipped a perfect pass back to Peters for Bill’s only pro goal.

This story clearly has nothing to do with his ability to coach at the NHL level, but I love it. The Zamboni driver who gets into a professional game in San Antonio while his wife is in medical school would be a pretty neat introductory story for the next head coach of the Stars.

That’s not happening though.

Peters will be a decent hire for someone, but as of 12 hours ago he was close to finalizing a deal in Calgary so the people of Calgary can introduce him. I just really liked that story, and the idea of deleting it simply because he’s going to the Flames didn’t feel right.

4/16/18 – Candidate Sheldon Keefe

Sheldon Keefe is the wildly successful 37 year old coach of the Toronto Marlies and formerly the Soo Greyhounds. In 500 games as a coach at the AHL and OHL levels Keefe has only lost 121 games outright.

Keefe is one of several coaches that we’ll look at who are getting labeled as “analytics guys”. We need to understand what that is and what Keefe brings as a coach to get an idea of what the Dallas Stars could be getting should they decide to pursue and ultimately hire Keefe.

The Toronto Marlies are awesome about getting videos on YouTube. They released a short video when Keefe was introduced as their new coach that gives you a brief glimpse into what he’s about now.

“I was an undersized guy that found my way into pro hockey and spending time in the NHL by working extremely hard and being relentless.”

He comes across as a very intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate guy every time I’ve seen him speak. There are tons of videos of him talking online because of the Marlies. Every one of his post game media scrums with the Marlies is on YouTube plus various other interviews.

What comes up in many of these earlier videos is his past and his connections to David Frost. I hesitate to even bring the situation up, but it’s bound to come up because of how crazy the story is, and a story as crazy as that one is bound to impact anyone involved.

If you want to read the full story, or as much of it as you’re likely to find, Gare Joyce wrote about it for ESPN. Katie Strang wrote a follow up for Deadspin.

Essentially, David Frost is a monster. The stories the reporters relay are often horrible. It boils down to an awful human being using a position of influence to take advantage of impressionable children. The story reached a crescendo when Mike Danton (nee Jefferson) tried to put an amateurish hit job on Frost.

Keefe fits into this story because he was very good friends with Jefferson. They were part of a squad known as the “Brampton Boys”. Both articles detail a little of what went on, but this one blurb from Strang’s piece is probably enough to give you the jist.

In 1996 Frost brought his Brampton Boys to Quinte, Ontario, a small town where he shacked up with several players, including Keefe and Tiveron, in “a dingy suite at the Bay View Inn.” There were reports of wild parties, puck bunny playthings, and bruised and sobbing players like Sheldon Keefe locked out of their rooms in their underwear on one of Frost’s angry whims. But the team had a rare winning season, and much was overlooked

That’s child abuse. God only knows what else went on, but speculating about that is wildly irresponsible. Needless to say, it was a bad scene that got worse over time when Jefferson ultimately tried to put a hit on Frost.

They were really good hockey players though, and Keefe was brash. He developed a reputation quickly, and he has had to repeatedly answer for it on top of all of the other stuff.

Damien Cox wrote an article about Keefe in 2015 detailing the second chance he got at hockey. One of the brash moments is so childish and immature that it’s almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

When they did win that OHL title, Keefe famously refused to shake the hand of league commissioner David Branch.

“This must burn your ass,” he sneered at Branch. It’s one of many things from that time he regrets.

This fight/scrum of his with now New York Islanders General Manager Garth Snow shows a little of what he was all about too.

When you carry yourself like that on and off the ice people are inevitably going to look at you crazy. Being an asshole isn’t a crime. Being an asshole and “criminal-adjacent” isn’t a good look, especially in a sport like hockey where someone like P.K. Subban gets sneered at while being a giant humanitarian.

More from Cox:

Keefe has said publicly he broke with Frost many years ago, and a phone call “would not be welcome.”

[…]

Keefe was never implicated in any crime. But his reputation was thoroughly besmirched through those relationships, and when his NHL career died after 125 games, it seemed likely we’d seen the last of him in the game.

Joyce wrote a follow up later on catching up with Keefe where he discussed the closing of those connections further.

When was the last time you had any contact with David Frost? Keefe doesn’t have a good answer to that. He’ll estimate that it’s five years, but he can’t point to a specific time or an incident…He chooses his words carefully, drip-filters all emotion from his voice. “I don’t know exactly when but I can say that he didn’t come to my wedding and doesn’t know my wife. He has never met my kids. If he called me it wouldn’t be welcomed.”

If you listen to him talk about his background at all you can tell how much it weighs on him. He touches on the Frost stuff at 10:14 of this video.

In part two of this interview he lets us in a little more.

I really wanted to have the opportunity to create an identity for myself, and if that meant having to give up playing and get involved more in the hockey operations, coaching, where again I know you would have the opportunity, in doing that, to really deal with people, young people, and their families one on one, I felt strongly that would be the best way for me to separate myself from the past and all the noise that was all around me.

He strikes me as a guy who understands the perceptions of David Frost and anyone ever involved with him, but how much can he be asked to answer for how other people acted when he was a young teenager?

The only fair question is about maturity, and he shows an uncommon amount of thoughtfulness and honesty in every answer he gives in these videos. None of this should even remotely be an issue given his resume.

And that resume is pretty damn good. Quite a bit of it does revolve around analytics. Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager, and his boss, Kyle Dubas spoke about him at the 2015 Sloan Analytics Conference.

Dubas mentioned the transformation of his team during his second year with Sault Ste. Marie. The Greyhounds were controlling about 47 percent of the shot attempts in the first 30 games and improved to 57 percent for the rest of the season.

The difference? Dubas hired a new coach, Sheldon Keefe, who took over and was open to using the data Dubas’ small team was able to deliver.

One of the slides Dubas used in his presentation is a nice little bullet point for this story. That line is when Dubas and Keefe took over the Greyhounds.

What about that means Keefe is into analytics? Nothing, but everything else written about him shows that he is. From the Cox piece again:

Heavily influenced by Dubas, formerly the Soo’s general manager, and his belief in the wave of analytical thinking sweeping over the sport, Keefe has produced a thinking man’s hockey team that relies on skill and speed less than muscle and aggression.

Given that he wasn’t that kind of player himself, the transformation is fascinating.

“I was able to put up good offensive numbers, but I was very much a straight-ahead player who relied on outworking opposition, not a guy who saw the ice particularly well,” Keefe says. “I relied on hard work, was probably over-reliant on physicality and being a pest.

“I’ve changed my outlook on the game quite a bit over the past few years.”

It wasn’t an immediate change though. As Dubas relayed to Lance Hornby.

Dubas laughed at the memory of blank looks he received from Greyhounds coach Sheldon Keefe when he first started talking about analytics. Now the team is competitive and he says Keefe is a believer.

[…]

“It took a long time to get through in Sault Ste. Marie and it’s not even close to perfect. You have to eliminate some of the noise and present the data that’s best going to help the team, whether it’s scouting, strategy or lineups. It’s trying to have everyone get on board and that takes a lot of time.

The “idea of analytics” isn’t just numbers floating into the ether, but actionable data that can make an impact. Dubas had to get Keefe to buy in, but then Keefe had to get a bunch of kids to play the way they needed to play to make the data turn in their favor.

Stories like this from Blueshirt Banter show how that process happens.

I was told a story recently where Keefe had to spend time in training camp with new players and force them to unlearn cliche concepts of getting pucks deep and making safe plays. Keefe wants a team that values possession of the puck. His teams execute breakouts so well, and do not punt the puck when under pressure in the neutral zone.

When Dubas hired him to take over the Toronto Marlies the idea was to bring those same concepts to the AHL. He wasn’t hired to focus on wins and losses, but specifically player development.

Like many clubs around the NHL, the system the Marlies and head coach Sheldon Keefe employ is virtually identical to what the Maple Leafs are doing at the NHL. But the Marlies take it a step further, structuring team meetings the same way. They attempt to replicate the environment a player will encounter should he make his way to the NHL.

“We spent a lot of time on development,” said Zach Hyman, who spent 59 games in the Marlies in 2015-16 before being promoted to the Leafs full time, and is now riding shotgun with Auston Matthews. “We have great player development people there that helped us work on things when we weren’t playing games.

“With the Marlies, they do everything that the Leafs do, and it’s an easy transition when you get called up. You know what you have to do, you know when the meetings are. You know everything. So that helps a lot.”

A few thoughts here. We’ve already seen the strong background Keefe has. We now know that he’s running the Marlies in the almost exact same manner as one of the most respected coaches in league history is running the NHL club. So if you’re big on NHL coaching experience, that seems to check that box.

More importantly, let’s take a moment to reflect how poorly the Stars have developed their prospects over the years. Rarely do you find a player joining the professional ranks with the Stars who blossoms. Development was Keefe’s primary objective with the Marlies, a team who in the last three seasons has put up two of the best seasons in AHL history.

The Leafs inevitably have a Red Wings influence to developing prospects.

“A lot of times in the NHL, we get them here before they’re ready and they get no confidence, and then we’re not happy with them,” Babcock said Thursday before the Maple Leafs defeated the New York Rangers 4-0 at Madison Square Garden. “If you get them here when they’re overripe, they’ve got a better chance of staying, and being confident players and scoring.”

As annoying as that paragraph is going to look for anyone following the Stars, it’s actually working in Toronto because they are actually developing their players because the Leafs are #ActuallyGood at it. Sheldon Keefe deserves a lot of credit for that development.

It works because from top to bottom the organization is on the same page. The Leafs draft players to fit their system who then go to the AHL and live life as Maple Leafs while being coached up by a man who has completely bought in. If you’re the Stars, don’t you want to bring a little slice of that set up into the fold here too?

The Marlies run the exact same system as the Maple Leafs. They play fast and try to keep possession of the puck. The modern game they play fits the ideas laid out by Jim Nill when he stated what he’s looking for in a coach. It doesn’t hurt that the Marlies keep staying near the top of the league in 5v5 Corsi either.

Back to that Cox story once more:

“I don’t take a lot of time to reflect, just keep pressing on,” Keefe says. “But there are times when I stop, think what I’ve gone through, think about what I’ve overcome, and been grateful for opportunities people kept giving me despite all the baggage I carried with me that would have prevented most people putting themselves out.

“Much of my motivation on a daily basis is to prove those people right.”

His strong history of player development and implementation of analytics combined with impeccable results make him a prime candidate for any opening in the NHL. He’s going to get the chance to prove those people right really soon most likely. He would be quite the bold hire for a risk averse organization, but if the Stars truly are looking for a young forward-thinking coach with a track record of success they probably aren’t finding a better candidate.

4/15/18 – Candidate Jim Montgomery

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”.

Neat.

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.

(Garth Snow and Mike Dunham were also teammates, for what that’s worth.)

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.

Montgomery coached Zemgus Girgensons with Dubuque also. I found this interesting from a USA Today piece as Girgensons was getting fan love for the All Star game a couple years back.

“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.

Possession1.gif

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.

TransitionCarry1.gif

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.

Transition2.gif

More of the same:

EasyExit

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.

EasyExit2

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.

CoastToCoast

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.