4/8/19 – Render unto Montgomery the things that are Montgomery’s

Jim Montgomery has taken a lot of shit this year. He’s deserved a lot of it too. This was a mediocre team at best for most of the season until around the All Star break. Then, suddenly, they started to play better. Sean Shapiro published an interview with Montgomery that goes into what went down a little bit.

One of the keys to being a successful person I’ve found is the willingness to adjust by reflecting about yourself, and the role you play in making success happen. Montgomery apparently went down this path hard at the All Star break.

“I read articles, watched games, just did that type of research,” Montgomery said. “What can we do to excel at that? And what can we do to give us a chance to make us consistently successful?”

Perfect. Even if the Stars had fallen short of their goal that’s all you can ask of someone if you trust their ability to do a job.

Two things really stick out to me about the interview. One, Montgomery got the leadership core engaged and taking ownership of the situation.

Montgomery sat down with Stars captain Jamie Benn and the rest of the leadership group. He held a summit to define what Stars hockey was going to look like for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.

“The players talked about how we need to be relentless. How when we play a relentless style, (with) a ‘let’s go hunt’ attitude, we are in a pretty good spot and that’s what we need to be.”

Two, he stopped trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This team doesn’t have the offensive firepower down the lineup to go toe to toe with the top offensive teams in the league offensively.

“I was fortunate in junior hockey I had teams that could score, you know what I mean? So we didn’t have to adopt that type of mentality. At Denver, we had to adopt that and we had to change the way we played the last six weeks of the regular season.”

[…]

“I’m never going to go away from my belief that you have to pressure and possess the puck,” Montgomery said. “But some players just don’t hang on to pucks long enough, they don’t protect pucks well enough for us to do certain things. That’s why we did more one-on-one video.”

Roope Hintz has clearly taken to this with a 42 point pace since the break. Radek Faksa looks better. Jason Dickinson has shown more offensive flashes. We’ve seen how absurdly good Mats Zuccarello looks fitting into the group. Alexander Radulov can’t stop scoring. For the younger players though it took trust from the guys in charge.

Montgomery deserves credit for steering the ship back in the right direction. Getting the leadership core on track and buying in, especially after Jim Lites ripped them to shreds, was key. Once they set the tone it makes everything else easier. Right around this time Montgomery was clearly frustrated publicly.

Good for him for taking that frustration, and turning it into positive results.

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1/14/19 – Dallas Stars Swap Devin Shore for Andrew Cogliano

The Dallas Stars have swapped 24 year old Devin Shore in exchange for 31 year old Andrew Cogliano of the Anaheim Ducks. Cogliano is signed for two more years at a hair over three million dollars.

If you look at this trade in a vacuum it looks like the Stars turned a 24 year old into a 31 year old locked into a three year contract while producing not much more than the 24 year old. The points here don’t really matter. This trade isn’t about points. This trade is about finding guys who can drag the entire team into the fight.

Andrew Cogliano is fast. At one point he was among the fastest in the league. He is known for being an excellent penalty killer. He is valued around the league for being a great guy and a leader who never takes a night off. The addition of Cogliano helps this team in a number of ways, and it may even improve the offense if he frees Radek Faksa up from some of his defensive responsibilities.

After the loss to the St. Louis Blues Jim Montgomery discussed the culture of mediocrity around the team. I wrote more about that situation here. The main idea there was that listening to Stars management continue to clutch pearls about how bad the culture is without changing the players out would have been obnoxious and pointless. This trade in isolation isn’t going to fix all of the issues, but it’s a start.

Sean Shapiro hit the nail on the head this morning. In his Shap Shots column he talked extensively about how the mediocre culture took root. This is a blurb from his thoughts:

Benn has also been allowed to define what leadership means for the Stars. He leads by his play rather than his words, making his captaincy less impactful when he’s not playing at a high level.

While Benn takes the lumps because of certain things he represents, he’s also provided the shield that stops other leaders on this team from being exposed. When Benn was out recently, the bench was silent; no one stepped up. When players that wore a letter were asked after Saturday’s loss to St. Louis about how they could impact the team as leaders, they responded by essentially saying they had done their jobs, that the loss was not their fault.

No one is asking John Klingberg to babysit other players while they get ready for a game, but there is a responsibility that comes with wearing an “A” which means you actually work to help make sure those following you are prepared. You need leaders to be part of the solution, not the problem.

This is where mediocrity takes hold. There is an expectation that others will be better, but no one is taking responsibility for the problems. They go all the way to the top and trickle down.

You aren’t going to change Jamie Benn’s personality, and changing a culture from within is hard. Bringing new respected voices in from the outside is one way to make it start to happen.  Make no mistake though, it’s a start.

Cogliano doesn’t fix the offense. He doesn’t fix the transition game or make the team have a consistent productive second line, but if he can help guide the younger guys on the bottom lines to being better more consistent professionals he will make an impact whether he does anything on the ice or not. And if he can be that guy in the bottom six working to rally the troops during in tense moments even better.

Leadership is important. It’s always going to be virtually impossible to quantify. Clearly Stars management and the coaches think there is a leadership void. Without being in the room it is almost impossible to fairly say, but the coaches aren’t just making the concerns they see with leadership up.

This is a team that desperately needs secondary scoring, and that isn’t coming from Cogliano (or Shore). We’ll see what else they have planned, if anything, but if they think they are a legitimate contender they need more.

There will be a full write up about what Cogliano is and can provide later. In the meantime, I guess the Stars decided to try to fix it eh?

Good.

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12/27/18 – The Stars forwards are painfully unproductive

The Dallas Stars are screwed, and there isn’t much that can be done about it without some drastic reorganizing of the roster. This is a problem that has been apparent for a while. The reasons for the problems have been apparent for a while. Years of not addressing these underlying causes have put the Stars in a spot where they have a mediocre product on the ice that is wasting the primes of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, and Alexander Radulov along with the final productive years of Jason Spezza.

This morning head coach Jim Montgomery pointed out that the Stars were “fucking embarrassing” in the morning skate. In the morning skate, friends.

The more composed press scrum after the morning skate is below.

I don’t know how much the morning skate matters, but if matters to Montgomery right now given how poorly they tend to start games. Mike Heika wrote it up just four days ago so it shouldn’t be too surprising to see Montgomery is still emphasizing it. The fact that the players still aren’t meeting the standards of the coaching staff despite this emphasis and the numerous messages sent is a bit problematic.

After a certain point you have to begin wondering if they can meet the standards. At some point this is just a bad team, and there is blame that can be assigned everywhere: the “core players” (however you define them), the depth forwards, the coaching staff, player development, special teams, and the front office. No team is squarely mediocre for just one reason.

This season pretty squarely falls on the forwards though. This chart from Sean Tierney is the Stars forwards Goals above Replacement from Evolving Hockey.

GAR

The Stars top three forwards have generated 21.4 goals above replacement. Collectively the top six have generated 31.5. That seems fine, but it’s nothing more than fine. Those totals rank 11th and 10th respectively across the league. Again, that’s fine. It isn’t good enough, and historically hasn’t been, to cover up for the other flaws on the roster.

One problem is recognizing who the top six actually are, and how they contribute value. Benn, Seguin, and Radulov are the clear top three. Seguin is 22nd among NHL forwards followed by Radulov (37) and Benn (50). No franchise boosting single performances, but as a trio a quality showing. Spezza, Jason Dickinson, and Blake Comeau are the next three.

Comeau derives none of his value at even strength so far. All of his comes from drawing penalties and being a quality penalty killer. Dickinson and Spezza are 8th and 9th in even strength ice time among forwards so they appear to be generating value despite not playing enough to maximize how much they can produce.

According to Evolving Hockey only nine Stars forwards have generated positive even strength value this year. Gemel Smith, Justin Dowling, Denis Gurianov are among those three which highlights the problem. Mattias Janmark is another, at half of a goal above replacement in 500 minutes. This team is terrible at even strength, and the majority of their production comes from three guys who have spent 258 minutes together.

In those 258 minutes the Stars are fine. With Radulov, Benn, and Seguin on the ice together they hum along at 55% of the shot attempts. In the 1043 minutes without them on the ice the team is a terrible 45%. To take it a step further take Spezza and Dickinson off the ice too. That’s 490 minutes of 43% shot attempt hockey.

The top three guys being 11th in the league in GAR is fine, but the franchise is expecting more out of them than being at the top of the middle of the pack. Given the lack of success of the franchise the past several years, now under three different head coaches, I think it’s more than fair to question if that core group as constructed and used can ultimately be successful.

Starz If the strength of the team is those three players, then expecting them to contribute the most value to the cause by exclusively playing them together implies that you’re banking on the admittedly mediocre depth players to take up the slack in the remaining minutes which they haven’t shown an ability to do.

The table to the right (up?) shows how each of the trio does without the other two on the ice so the idea of rolling one on each line seems optimistic at best – which goes back to the depth issue and usage. How do you split them apart when there is no one to put out there with them?

What the Stars have largely not done is try Dickinson or Spezza with any of those three for any extended period of time. Spezza has skated with Benn and Seguin for close to 50 minutes. and the trio controlled the play to the same degree Radulov and the duo have. Surely a second line of attack can be opened up with Radulov skating with Dickinson, Gurianov, Nichushkin, Hintz…someone?

Another red flag is the usage of Faksa. He’s taking all of the difficult minutes, but he’s getting caved in. Given how much of a burden he has taken on, shouldn’t you expect the rest of the line up to have more offensive opportunities? If they aren’t capitalizing on those chances at what point is killing Faksa’s offensive opportunities not worth it? His results have essentially negated the value generated by Spezza or Dickinson. It doesn’t seem that productive.

The Stars only have a few choices here.

Change how the lines roll and find some combos that work then stick with them for a while. Ideally, yes, you need everyone to be comfortable playing together. But, if half the roster has shown no ability to move the needle does it matter if they feel comfortable playing with the top guys?

Add to the core forward group via trade. This should have happened in the offseason somehow. It didn’t, and now they can’t score. There were opportunities to do it and the Stars, for whatever reason, chose not to do so.

Blow up the entire bottom of the roster. Let Dowling, Gurianov, Hintz, Joel L’Esperance, and whoever else take regular shifts. Punt on Martin Hanzal, Devin Shore, and Brett Ritchie. Hint: this is not going to happen mid-season because the logistics don’t make any sense.

Do nothing. If they take this route they aren’t going to make the playoffs. I don’t know which route they take, maybe a mixture of all of them, but something needs to change. Stability is important, but keeping stable mediocre results isn’t going to make anything useful happen. This team has talent, but whatever it is that is going on is keeping it from truly shining.

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11/20/18 -Developing, or not, Julius Honka

Developing any skill is hard. I don’t care if we’re talking about hockey, making a pizza, or learning to write. Skill development is challenging because of the inordinate amount of factors that go into it that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the skill.

School this year has been a unique challenge for me. Our kids came to us out of control behaviorally with learning gaps, un-diagnosed learning disorders, and an extreme lack of confidence due to the aforementioned issues. Regardless of how they come to me I’m charged with putting them in a position where they can be successful on the STAAR exam at a 40% clip for them personally and 60% clip to meet grade level expectations for the state.

What matters is results. Full stop. The extenuating circumstances don’t matter. 75% of my students being served by special education. ESL, or 504 doesn’t matter. The regular gaps of the students not served by a special title doesn’t matter. What matters is how prepared these kids are to succeed on an exam that the school, district, and state can point to as an indicator of success or failure.

Such is life for anyone in a position where they are asked to develop talent in any walk of life. Each different scenario presents unique challenges that people on the outside will not be able to comprehend without being there. When people criticize teachers for a lack of success I tend to laugh because few know what goes into the process of dragging a kid kicking and screaming to learn a subject they don’t care to learn. It isn’t possible to know all of the inputs to the situation from the outside.

Hell, it isn’t possible from the inside. Prior to break I found out a student of mine has a two year old child. How am I supposed to continue to be upset about this student being sleepy at 6:50 in the morning on a daily basis? I can’t in good conscience be mad at this kid, but knowing this information gives me an opportunity.

I can now point out how much better off his child’s life can be if he completes high school. I can work with him to make sure he gets the information he needs while understanding he has significant responsibilities at home. I can build a relationship that shows I care which allows me to feed him negative feedback in an environment where he understands I’m saying it because I care and want him to be successful.

Sports development has one significant difference from teaching kids: the personal responsibility falls on the athlete to use the coaching and tools at his disposal to meet the goals set by the development staff. All of the other extenuating circumstances don’t have to matter to the development staff because in a professional environment the professional is expected to meet the standards of his profession despite any noise on the outside.

Inevitably I would guess most coaches care, but the nature of professional sports is such that if a player isn’t meeting a coach’s expectations they turn to the next man up if he gives the team a better chance of success. There exists a delicate balance between development and success on the ice that organizations have to maintain. The question they have to answer is can a player develop his game while maintaining a level of play superior than enough of his contemporaries in the organization to demand a roster spot?

Julius Honka is not a top four defenseman in the 2019 NHL season. There is a fair debate to be had about whether or not he can ever reach that goal on a championship caliber team, a ceiling set for him with the pedigree of being a mid first round pick. What there can be little debate over is that in the minutes he has been given overall this season he has produced capably.

I pulled a bunch of info from Corsica on the Stars most common five defensemen. I then changed the numbers to their ranks among the five of them. Honka is one or two in most, and goes no lower than third on any of them except ice time. One of the lower ranked ones is individual expected goals per hour, but he, like John Klingberg, isn’t an even strength goal scorer. You wouldn’t expect him to excel there.

3

There are a number of inputs to this situation that need to be considered before anointing Honka as being on his way to greatness. Honka gets the easiest zone starts, the easiest competition, and consistently the worst linemates of the five players. Given the first two he should be producing. The last nugget should, theoretically, bring his offensive totals down. It probably does drag his secondary assists down, but he’s tops among these five in primary points per hour. The signal here is that he is doing something right.

The emphasis here should be on something. As in, not everything. The sum total of what Honka has brought to his role this year is positive by almost every statistic you can find. An overwhelming consensus of the available information suggests he has done something right.

Jim Montgomery has pointed out that he wants players taking chances to make offense happen. The idea has been that he can live with mistakes, if the mistakes come from a player trying to make a play. Many of the mistakes Honka does make come from trying to make a play, but the mental calculus any professional has to work to figure out if he can make a play is off for him right now.

It isn’t so far off to make him a liability in the role Montgomery and his staff have given him however. If you look at the sum total of his skills with the assumption that all are equally valuable, or look at the events which transpire with him on the ice without proper context, or disregard the statistical information generated by his play the conversation becomes disingenuous and unfair to the player.

If you watch Honka play you see good flashes and bad flashes. You see the inconsistency in his game that holds him back. We’ve seen Honka do magical things with the puck that make him believe he can do anything with it, but we’ve then seen those same situations bite him in the ass enough that it is going to naturally make him question his ability as a hockey player while minimizing the amount of skill he puts on display.

Honka, at his best, skates the puck out of the zone and springs the offense with crisp outlet passes. He gets into the offensive zone and sets up goals with quality vision. At his worst Honka is passive defensively for fear of making a mistake, gets pushed around physically, and turns the puck over because in his mind he feels like he can make plays that to this point sometimes lead to turnovers.

And in the end, the statistical indicators show that this year Honka has done quite a bit more good than bad in the role given him by the coaching staff. Having a discussion about Honka without the context statistics provide is not going to provide the proper nuance necessary to fairly look at the overall game he has played making any discussion that begins with that premise pointless.

The injury to Klingberg has provided an opportunity for Honka to show that he can be the type of top four defenseman the Stars thought he could be when they drafted him. I pulled data from Corsica again for the last five games for the four regular defensemen still playing.

image1

Honka, largely, has been the worst of the four. He has the points, but other than that statistically he has been the worst of the regular four. Added responsibilities and being forced into the situation of being “the guy” on a pair more frequently have exposed Honka is pretty clearly not a top four defenseman right now, or, at least, not a play driver for a defensive pair.

On the other hand, Miro Heiskanen is proving that he is already a top pairing defenseman in the league at 19. With Klingberg out of the lineup he has a 72% xGF rate to go with a 53% Corsi and almost 90 minutes of even strength ice time. The kid is an absolute horse who, with Klingberg out, has stepped up to show he is the future of the franchise defensively.

Honka hasn’t, and that’s ok. When the roster is in less flux he will slide back to his role ideally with more positive experience that will allow him to fine tune that rough mental calculus that leads to turnovers and mistakes. He may not develop into the guy many hoped he would, but as a bottom six guy who can put points on the board he still has value.

And, using the data tracked by Corey Sznajder from 2014-2018 this image shows why it’s too early to just toss Honka out.

2

The kid has something. It’s just a matter of him finding the right balance between risk and reward so he can unlock it consistently.

9/15/18 – Jason Dickinson, Julius Honka, and development through positive reinforcement

The Dallas Stars have taken a severe beating from fans for the inability to develop prospects into productive NHLers. Drafting players with high floors and low ceilings plays a part, but another part of this problem is getting talented players to blossom once they reach the professional ranks.

I think often the development process is misunderstood in sports and education in general. Skill development is only part of the equation. People have to have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills to the best of their abilities, and they also need to be in the right headspace to maximize those abilities.

It is still all too common to think of an athlete as weak-minded or some other garbage whenever the mental attributes of sports are brought up. Robin Lehner’s story as laid out in The Athletic shows an extreme proof of concept that, who knows, maybe isn’t that uncommon?

You can scream “be a professional” all day if you choose, but every job on earth is more difficult with outside distractions. I’ve been dealing with debilitating tooth pain for two weeks constantly. I only missed two days at work. If I had been evaluated on any of those days my evaluation would suggest I need to find a new line of work.

Nothing I went through compares to what Lehner has dealt with, obviously.

A large mental roadblock is confidence, and I don’t think the significance of confidence can be overstated when it comes to personal development. I see it every year with my students who come in expecting to fail because they always have. They make jokes, refuse to try, and avoid all work because doing all of these things keeps them from facing failure.

The fear to fail keeps people from taking risks. As a teacher I can do one of two things: reinforce that fear by emphasizing the mistake, or emphasize the courage it took to take the risk while correcting it in a positive way. Reminding people of their failure repeatedly doesn’t add to the person. They very likely know they messed up. Building that person up to be the best they can is often difficult, but it can be crucial.

Two days into the tenure of Jim Montgomery as the Stars head coach you’re already seeing that he is a master of this ability. The way he seems to be handling his young players provides that missing element in the development process that has kept the Stars prospects from thriving in Dallas.

Sean Shapiro’s reporting from camp has been excellent as always. Early on he has pulled some quotes that caught my eye. On day one of camp he caught up with former first round pick Jason Dickinson, a prospect who definitely needs to step up soon.

“The way he runs it out there, he’s not black and white,” Jason Dickinson said. “He sees the other options out there. Like we’re going through a neutral zone forecheck and although I might miss the perfect route, as long as he sees the recovery, he’s really happy with that. And he’ll come over, and say, ‘That was a great recovery. The route at the beginning wasn’t great, but I like where you came back to.’ And that’s a huge thing. If he’s able to recognize that you knew you messed up, but you were able to fix things.”

You can see Montgomery emphasizing the positive here. You can see the impact it has on Dickinson. Montgomery is showing him that he believes in his ability as a player to solve problems on the fly, and he’s praising his ability to solve this problem while showing him the optimal way to do it.

It adds value to the young player by validating what he did plus showing him the best way to do it. He doesn’t have to be in his head when it comes time for the game wondering if he’s going to lose ice time for making a mistake. He can just be himself and know that’s good enough.

Anyone with a passing interest in the local hockey team saw how the Stars handled Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and then Julius Honka. Questioning the ability of the players to play in the NHL is fair on some level. Then you see how Pittsburgh was able to pull value out of Oleksiak, and how the Avalanche pulled value out of Nemeth.

Honka has more upside than either of those two ever did. His game was so marginalized last season that at times he was barely recognizable as Honka. What can he do if he’s allowed to be himself? Sean followed up with Honka and Montgomery about their impressions of each other so far.

When Montgomery looked at the film he saw in Honka a lack of confidence. There were many things to like, but the defender needed to be in a spot where he was trusted and wasn’t second-guessing himself every shift.

“I want to get the confidence back and play the offensive style of game that I do,” Honka said. “It’s nothing too much, just play and, of course, pay attention to those little details. Just enjoy and play, kind of go with the flow.”

[…]

“I think the biggest thing is I want to be myself more,” Honka said. “I haven’t really had the chance to bring the best out of me yet. It was a good summer. I feel ready to go.”

[…]

“You know what? I saw a smile on his face for the first time today. So I was really happy,” Montgomery said. “He’s always guarded around me, and I felt like someone, I don’t know how, he was smiling around the coaches. I think he’s starting to see that his feet are gonna be something that are gonna really help us the way we want to play defensively and offensively.”

He got Honka to smile. What more do you need to know?

Montgomery can only put these guys in the best position to succeed. The players still have to play. They’re going to play better if they can get out of their heads. Montgomery seems to be putting them in a place to maximize their abilities by building them up instead of putting them down. It remains to be seen how that will translate on the ice, but if I had to bet I would bet on it leading to a positive change for the Stars development fortunes.

MontgomeryReac

5/4/18: Monty Effect on NCAA Free Agents and Tanner Jaillet

The Dallas Stars have never been a major player with college free agents. You never really hear their name attached to any of the big ones, and until recently it never seemed like they were very active at all. How much of an impact does the signing of Jim Montgomery to be the Stars next coach have on that going forward?

Montgomery has led the University of Denver Pioneers to be one of the more respected programs in the NCAA since taking over in 2014. His players are starting to make a mark at the NHL level. Will Butcher in New Jersey, Danton Heinen in Boston, and soon Henrik Borgstrom and US Olympian Troy Terry will be in the NHL.

Gavin Bayreuther and now Tony Calderone have joined the Stars as NCAA free agents the past two seasons. If the Stars want to be even more active, having a resource like Montgomery available can only help. He gives them firsthand access to knowledge and sources to help them make more informed decisions about who to pursue.

On the other hand, if you’re a college free agent unsure about heading to a team in Dallas couldn’t seeing Montgomery in place help pacify your worries? He’s a big name in college hockey and surely could be a valuable recruiting chip.

Montgomery should also bring another perspective on the prospects the Stars currently have in the NCAA. This is part of the value of going outside the organization for some fresh blood. He should have some of his own views on players like Riley Tufte, Colton Point, Joe Cecconi, and Jake Oettinger as they try to break into the NHL very soon.

All of that alone is a worthwhile impact, but why not see if that influence can help improve the Stars organization now? Many college free agents are still unsigned. Among those is one of his former key players at Denver: goaltender Tanner Jaillet.

The four year starter at Denver has a career .925 save percentage. That’s pretty salty and has improved the last two years. He was named the 2017 Mike Richter Award recipient as the top goaltender in the NCAA.

Of course, he’s 5’10 so he’s going to get passed over. Why shouldn’t a franchise like the Stars give him a shot? They have Point and Oettinger coming, sure. They aren’t coming next year though. 24 year old Jalliet is going to have to work to be in a position to block either player, but if he made himself that useful is it really a bad thing?

Right now the Texas Stars need goaltending for next season. Landon Bow is the only goalie under contract for 2019. Outside of half of a season in the WHL and half of a season in the ECHL he’s just been ok. They’ll need an emergency NHL option, but why not take a swing at something more with someone who has had as much success as Jalliet in tandem with a veteran?

The beauty of that question is the Stars now have someone who can directly answer it. Getting more involved in the pursuit of college talent makes a ton of sense, and they are now uniquely situated to do it with an extra bounty of information thanks to the hiring of Montgomery.