Hitchcock on Seguin: ‘Maturing of his game has been dramatic’

Dallas Stars right-winger Alexander Radulov (47), of Russia, and Dallas Stars centre Tyler Seguin (91) celebrate after Seguin scored the game-winning goal in overtime in an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018, Boston. The Stars won 3-2 in overtime. (Steven Senne/AP)

When Ken Hitchcock landed back in Dallas last summer for his second go-around as head coach of the Stars, there was an immediate expectation the team would tighten up on defence. And among the forwards all eyes were on Tyler Seguin, an all-offence centre, and how his game would evolve and fit in with Hitchcock’s style.

Turns out, the answer is “seamlessly.”

For the first time in Seguin’s career, he’s getting more than 50 per cent of his zone starts in the defensive end and he’s winning a career-high 65 per cent of his faceoffs.

The most telling part of Seguin’s on-ice maturation is that Hitchcock puts him out there at the end of games when the Stars are protecting a lead. The 26-year-old is also the fourth-most-used Stars forward on the penalty-kill, an assignment he had never been given with any regularity before.

“He’s been such a pleasant surprise and such a joy to be around. He’s got an overall game you’re really proud of,” Hitchcock said on the Dennis and Cowlishaw Show. “His attention to detail killing penalties, his tenacity to score, his ability to play against the other team’s top players, he’s made huge steps. The maturing of his game has been dramatic. I don’t think a lot of people saw this coming. And, quite frankly, I didn’t know how far it’d come in one year, but in six months to see where he’s got to is really impressive. He looks like a guy you can count on in every situation, in every building, on every night.”

Some of the best players in the NHL over the years have started their careers with an all-offence mindset and only became the top players we recognize after incorporating defensive responsibility. Steve Yzerman in Detroit is one of the best examples of this and in Dallas, Seguin was drawing hopeful comparisons to former Stars great Mike Modano.

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Before Hitchcock landed in Dallas for the first time in 1995-96, Modano was already a three-time 30-goal scorer and had even hit the 50-goal mark once. But in just his second season under Hitchcock, Modano finished fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy and was a finalist in 2000-01. He never won the award, but it was an area of his game that improved to make him a high-end No. 1 centre and a leading part on a team that reached back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, winning one.

But Hitchcock doesn’t think Modano is the best comparison for Seguin’s game. Instead, he looks to a player he had in Philadelphia who isn’t a marquee name.

“Modano, he scored differently, he scored off the rush. His offensive anticipation was different,” Hitchcock said. “I think the one player that really stands out for me was Alexei Zhamnov and that to me is how Seguin’s game is.

“To see how good a penalty killer (Seguin’s) become; how many top centres do you send out there when you’re down two guys? And he plays in those situations. That’s really impressive.”

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With 36 goals in 67 games, Seguin needs just two more to set a career high in that offensive category. Rather than sacrificing his impact on the attack, Seguin’s evolution — like Modano’s and Yzerman’s — has opened up opportunities on offence.

That’s because Hitchcock didn’t arrive with drills to show Seguin how to specifically improve on defence — more than anything the new coach just wanted him to be harder to play against. As that happens, Seguin gets better in all areas.

“You can get points by being a sudden-strike player. But for him to move to the next level, I want to see one thing: I want to see his competitive level at the puck improve,” Hitchcock told the Dallas Morning News before the season. “If you’re going to be a good offensive player, you’re going to have to hold on to the puck longer, you’re going to have to keep it more; and if you’re going to have it more, you’re going to have to compete for it longer.”

Seguin likely won’t get major traction for the Selke Trophy, but the Stars’ top pivot is a central reason why Dallas is bouncing back from a playoff-less 79-point season and into a dark horse spot for this year’s post-season. But as important as having Hitchcock as his coach has been to bring this out of him, Seguin deserves credit for buying in from Day 1.

“It gets me giddy,” he said in October. “Since I’ve come to Dallas, I’ve wanted to be a No. 1 centreman. I still want to be. I want to be a No. 1 centreman and a two-way guy.”

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