Even through adversity and some early-season tumbles, the Dallas Stars found a way to turn in one of their most successful campaigns of the last decade. A large part of that had to do with the philosophy and teachings of first-year head coach Jim Montgomery. All in all, it was an impressive campaign for the rookie bench boss.
When thinking back on the past 14 months, it seems almost unbelievable to think that the only thing separating the 2017-18 Dallas Stars and 2018-19 Dallas Stars in the regular season was one point. And yet, that’s what it all boils down to.
Sure, the two teams were different in their composition, hit hot streaks and cold skids at different points, and one team went to the postseason while the other took on another early offseason filled with change. But, when comparing the two in the plainest way, 92 points in 2017-18 and 93 points in 2018-19 doesn’t seem to foster that much of a difference between the two clubs.
And yet, they couldn’t have been more different.
Take a step back to April 13, 2018. While the DFW sports world gave all of its attention to the Dallas Cowboys cutting superstar wide receiver Dez Bryant from their roster, another Dallas sports story flew somewhat under the radar.
Less than one week after ending another campaign at game 82 and missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock announced his “retirement” (which, as it turns out, was nothing more than a six-month vacation) from coaching professional hockey.
In his second stint with the Stars, he did some good things (like drastically fixing the team’s defensive structure and helping Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg to career-best seasons), but was ultimately unable to help Dallas achieve its main goal of getting back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a result, he stepped down and left the Stars’ bench boss position in need of a replacement for the second year in a row.
So GM Jim Nill once again hopped into the search for a new coach. And with his seat already getting warm after missing the postseason in three of his first five seasons as GM, it was clear that his next choice for head coach needed to be perfect.
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Less than a month later, he filled the void. After a brief interviewing process that gave Stars fans almost no time to look at potential candidates, the Dallas Stars hired Jim Montgomery from the University of Denver.
The hiring came with a hefty dose of uncertainty, and for good reason. While Montgomery had been successful in all of his previous coaching gigs and even won an NCAA National Championship, he was only the fifth head coach ever to make a direct jump from the NCAA to the NHL. And with the previous four coaches producing varying results of success and failure, it was uncertain whether Montgomery would be able to meet the high expectations set for him.
And so, the anxious wait for October came and went. Monty’s system and “The Process” that he created seemed to fit the Dallas Stars well, but would the first-year head coach be able to carry the team back to the playoffs in his rookie campaign? If not, it might signal the end of Nill’s tenure in Dallas and the start of another new era of Dallas hockey.
As the season got underway, it began turning out as most expected it would. Montgomery had the respect of the players and had a firm grasp on the team, but was running into some early-season challenges. Injuries began to pile up, the offense started to struggle, and the Stars couldn’t seem to find a consistent groove.
By Christmas break, the Stars were sitting on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and looked as though they were in for another hit-or-miss season. Montgomery was becoming visibly frustrated with the team’s effort and talked about his disappointment with being unable to change the “culture of mediocrity” that the team had built for itself.
When the calendar flipped to 2019, the Dallas Stars looked to be in a rut. They were barely above the .500 mark, the season was halfway over, and it seemed as though Montgomery would need more than one year to turn the team back into a contender.
That’s when the turnaround occurred. After losing four games in a row in mid-January, the Stars defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 just before the All-Star Break. That win kicked off a 20-11-3 push to end the season and helped the Stars finish at 43-32-7 with 93 points. The push wound up being good enough to get Dallas back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the top wild card seed in the West.
From there, the Stars defeated the Central division champion Nashville Predators in a six-game affair in round one and took the St. Louis Blues to the brink in a seven-game series in round two that ended in double overtime.
A large part of that success must be accredited to Montgomery and his staff. And when you compare his numbers to other NCAA-to-NHL coaches in their first seasons and take a look at what he accomplished compared to the last few Dallas coaches, it’s clear that Montgomery took an impressive and sizable step forward in his first season as an NHL coach.
But the numbers don’t necessarily tell the story. For all of the hype that was built around Montgomery’s “relentless and high-pressure offenses” going into the season, the Dallas Stars fell woefully short by averaging 2.55 goals per game (28th in the league). In addition, their power play was just decent (21.0 percent). But, all in all, their scoring efforts and offensive pressure were just average.
And while their defense was second-best in the NHL, their penalty kill finished as a top-five unit, and their goaltending tandem was one of the best in the league, it was Montgomery’s willingness to adapt and shift the team mindset that made him so successful.
Unlike some of the Stars’ previous coaches that were stuck in “their way” of doing things, Montgomery was open and responsive to potential change. When he realized that the Stars didn’t have the firepower to be a relentless and explosive team like he had created at Denver, he didn’t panic and continue trying to force something that wasn’t there; instead, he turned to his team’s defensive strengths and used them to his advantage.
By changing his team’s philosophy, getting the players to commit, and never being afraid to change his lineup around in hopes of finding a combination that worked, Montgomery proved his worthiness and reliability as an NHL bench boss.
When the Stars floundered early and showed signs of turning in another average year well below expectations, he didn’t panic or submit. Montgomery simply took it as a challenge and found a way to hurdle over it.
“I like how straight up he is. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He tells you what’s what and exactly what he expects. It’s nice to have that kind of clear path of, ‘This is what is expected of me and if I do this I should be alright.’ His game plan really does breed success because if you’re on that right side of the puck and if you’re doing all of the little things that he preaches, you’re going to get chances. It’s worked out well for me.” – Jason Dickinson on Jim Montgomery’s coaching style
He was accessible and open with all of his players, let his coaching staff help him along in various challenges, and received an immediate buy-in and commitment from the locker room. That can be tough for a rookie head coach to do, especially when his audience is NHL veterans that have been playing for eight or more years.
When the stage got bigger and the playoffs came into focus, he didn’t merely focus on making the playoffs and boasting that as his crowning achievement; instead, he took center stage and led his team to a decisive first-round victory against a Stanley Cup favorite.
And when exit interview day rolled around, Montgomery was quick to point out his disappointment with how the season ended and the team’s inability to take the next step. But he did leave the door open for more success in the immediate future.
“Everything is going to be easier next year,” Montgomery pointed out on exit interview day. “The games aren’t going to be, but our relationships, the language we use [will be easier]. We should start the season a much more consistent team. We’ll have our ups and downs at some point. But I think, the beginning of the year, the first month should be pretty smooth as far as us getting off the ground.”
When Jim Nill chose Jim Montgomery as the team’s newest head coach, he was taking a risk. Any time a GM takes a gamble on a coach that has never stood behind an NHL bench before when his team is already in a dire need for results, there’s risk involved.
But Montgomery never let the stage get too big or the spotlight get too bright. He brought his philosophy to the table, was always willing to change things up in an effort to make the team better, and took new lessons from each game. He learned the ins and outs of his team and found a way to turn them into an effective contender in just one season behind the bench.
And when a rookie head coach can boast all of those qualities in his first year, there’s no denying that the future could be bright for his team.
That’s what Nill and the Stars are banking on, after all.