New Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery: ‘You have to let horses run’

Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites, head coach Jim Montgomery, and GM Jim Nill. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

The Dallas Stars officially introduced ‘Monty’ as their new head coach on Friday.

“I’m going to go by Monty,” Jim Montgomery said, flanked by Stars CEO Jim Lites and GM Jim Nill. “I’m not going to go by Jim.”

The 48-year-old ‘Monty’ played 122 games in the NHL, including nine with Dallas, but became more successful as a coach when his playing days were over. He becomes just the fourth coach in history to jump from the NCAA right into his first NHL head coaching gig, and is just the second active one, joining Philadelphia’s Dave Hakstol. None of them have won a Stanley Cup.

But to hear Montgomery describe the kind of game he wants his new team to play, it sounds perfectly suitable to today’s supersonic game, with the Stanley Cup Playoffs further proving just how important the speed and skill factor is over size and strength.

“On the ice, for the Dallas Stars fan, if you can think of an adjective of what we’re going to look like, it’s going to be relentless,” Montgomery told assembled media. “We’re going to be a puck possession team and we’re going to try and make plays everywhere on the ice. When we don’t have the puck, we’re going to pressure you so we can get it back and make more plays.”

For all their firepower, the Stars have missed the playoffs two years in a row, and have just one series win in the past decade. This season Dallas faded badly down the stretch, going 7-10-4 after the trade deadline to miss the playoffs by three points.

Ken Hitchcock, who returned to Dallas’ bench for one season, turned the Stars into a team that allowed the fourth-fewest shots against per game, but on offence they generated the 10th-fewest shots per game. The last time Dallas reached the playoffs in 2015-16, they were still a top-10 team in shot suppression, but led the NHL in goals and were fourth in shots.

Montgomery is seeking to get back to striking that kind of a balance. And though neither Jamie Benn nor Tyler Seguin struggled to produce on offence under Hitchcock, Montgomery suggested the reins could be taken off his top players when they have the puck, which makes for exciting (and winning) hockey.

“I think you look at the championship teams that have won in the NHL,” he said. “The teams play a certain way. There’s structure to their game, but there’s creativity and flair to it, too. You have to let horses run. Everyone should look the same when we don’t have the puck and when we do have the puck, everyone should play to their strengths.”

Starting as an assistant with Notre Dame under Jeff Jackson, and then under Seth Appert at RPI, Montgomery’s first head coaching gig came in the USHL with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010-11. There, he won two championships in three seasons before moving on to the University of Denver in 2013-14. He won another title with the Pioneers in 2017, after which he started getting calls from NHL teams.

Montgomery has helped produce such NHLers as Henrik Borgstrom, Johnny Guadreau, Mike Matheson, Will Butcher and Danton Heinen over the past eight years, and is used to getting the most out of skilled young players, no matter their pedigree or draft position.

Far from a safe hire, the Stars are banking on a modern mindset taking them to the next level at a crucial point in their development. Montgomery is the third coach Dallas has had in as many seasons after Hitchcock stepped into retirement, but this is the kind of behind-the-bench turnover only the worst teams with the worst track records get sucked into. It’s a dangerous cycle and one the Stars are eager to break out of with this hire.

“I’ve gotten engaged in this process more significant than I would have been in prior years because it’s a real important hire for us,” Lites said. “This is a situation where we have a team that is in its prime we think. We anticipate involving our younger group and engaging them with our veterans and we think we’ve got a team that should and will compete for the Stanley Cup every season.”

So expectations remain high for Dallas heading into a season with a rookie coach and with a roster that produced just four players with more than 34 points in 2017-18. It will be crucial for Montgomery to further develop youngsters Remi Elie, Gemel Smith and Julius Honka, all rookies this season, and early-20s players such as Radek Faksa, Mattias Janmark and Brett Ritchie. Third-overall pick in 2017 Miro Heiskanen is another elite talent who could find his way to the NHL as soon as next season.

Dallas may have been the fifth-youngest team in the NHL this season, but have some high-end players who are in their prime years as well. The challenge will be to manage all of this amid the pressures of playoff projections, but the Stars could do worse than bet on a guy who built one of the most successful NCAA programs over the past few years.

“Who was Scotty Bowman? Somebody gave him a chance. Who was Mike Babcock? Somebody gave him a chance. This is a guy that deserves a chance and I think he’s going to do the job for us,” Nill said.

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