When Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill introduced Jim Montgomery as the team’s newest (and the franchise’s 23rd) head coach late last week, it marked the third bench boss that he has hired in five years. The first two coaches were NHL veteran mentors with considerable skins on the wall.
Lindy Ruff (2013-2017) made the playoffs twice in four years but couldn’t inspire his team past the second round on either occasion. In his final season, the team produced only 79 points, the second-fewest in a full season since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.
And Ken Hitchcock’s second go-round with the franchise (he led them to their only Stanley Cup in 1999) lasted just one season in which the team slumped horribly at season’s end and missed the playoffs for the eighth time in the last decade. The Stars were solidly positioned for the postseason in March before an eight-game (0-6-2) nosedive sent the players to the golf course, and nudged Hitchcock into retirement from coaching and into a consultant’s role.
With a surplus of young talent skating with the Stars, their AHL affiliate in Cedar Park, Texas and amateur squads worldwide, Nill decided to break the mold and head in a different direction.
He hired a coach who can relate to youth and take that source of talent to the next level. Hopefully for Nill, this is a coach who will be around for more than just a few years.
”I think the game is changing, and in the end it’s dealing with people,” Nill said. ”It’s dealing with the younger players, and on top of it, winning, and he’s done that.”
Montgomery became very attractive to the Stars’ brain trust because he is certainly accustomed to dealing with young players. He becomes the second head coach in three years and the fourth ever to go directly from the college ranks to the NHL.
The 48-year-old former NHL center iceman from 1995 to 2003 brings a highly successful track record from the collegiate ranks. He began as an assistant with Notre Dame and in 2013 was named head coach of the University of Denver. He led the Pioneers to the NCAA championship in 2017 and compiled a 125-57-26 record.
“We analyzed every team (in the NHL) and we said ‘where are they at with their coaching?'” Nill said. “The great part about the process is that we said ‘let’s open our minds up a little bit.’ We knew there were going to be some great veteran coaches out there, but we said ‘Is it time? Do we need to evolve a little bit here?’ You’ve seen the success of these young coaches and where the league is going. That brought him into the loop and he did the rest.”
Team captain Jamie Benn, who was present at the presser where Montgomery was introduced, welcomed this type of hire. “We have a lot of young players coming up,” he said. “Our core players are still pretty young. I think I’m probably the oldest (29 in July) of those guys. I still consider myself pretty young. Monty’s obviously been a coach of younger players most of his career, so I think he’ll do a great job here.”
Montgomery also may be the perfect coach for the Stars because – unlike Hitchcock – he favors an offensive mindset. That will be helpful in today’s NHL, where seven of the eight playoff contenders who made it to the second round were ranked among the top 10 scoring teams during the 2017-18 regular season.
Montgomery certainly fits that mold. In four of his five seasons at U. Denver, his teams were among the top 10 scoring squads in the NCAA. “(Our attack is) going to be relentless,” said Montgomery. “We are going to be a puck-possession team and we are going to try to make plays everywhere on the ice. When we don’t have the puck, we are going to pressure you so we can get it back and make more plays.
“I think you look at the championship teams that have won in the NHL, and they play a certain way,” he added. “There’s structure to their game, but there’s creativity and flair, as well. You have to let horses run.”
Montgomery was attracted to the Stars by their lineup. “When I look (at who they have), I really get excited,” he said. “(The lineup) has everything you want. It has star power, depth, size, skill and speed at every position.”
Montgomery is only the fourth head coach to go directly from college to the NHL. Hakstol, who was hired prior to the 2015-16 NHL season in Philadelphia, has led the Flyers to a 122-86-38 mark. They have made the playoffs his first and third season, but failed to advance past the opening round both times.
Ned Harkness was the first, going from Cornell to Detroit in 1970. He compiled a 12-22-4 record before becoming the Red Wings general manager. Bob Johnson was the next coach to go from college to the NHL, leaving Wisconsin to coach Calgary in 1982. He compiled a 234-188-58 record in six seasons as an NHL head coach. Johnson team’s made the playoffs in all six of his seasons, five in Calgary and his only season in Pittsburgh for a Stanley Cup title in 1991.
Nill said his final list of 10 candidates includes five veteran coaches and five others who could be given an opportunity as an NHL coach. “(Montgomery) is a guy who’s been on our radar screen,” Nill said. ”He had that passion, that fire. He’s built his resume up the right way. It’s about winning, and he’s found a way to do it, and especially a way to do it in today’s game.”