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Hitchcock has game plan for Benn, Stars

Coach will lean on captain to demand accountability, stress team concept

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Soon after he was hired as coach of the Dallas Stars on April 13, Ken Hitchcock had lunch with captain Jamie Benn on a hotel patio. It was hot. Really hot.

"Smoking hot," Benn said.

Still, they talked for two hours.

"He's an intelligent man," Benn said. "He definitely knows what he wants and has a game plan. I was very impressed with my first meeting with him."

They kept talking in the offseason via meetings, calls and texts. The hope is that it will help in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs when the heat is on.

Video: Captain Jamie Benn discusses Stars busy offseason

Hitchcock has always burned with intensity and shows no sign of cooling at age 65. He flamed out with the St. Louis Blues last season one win short of tying Al Arbour at 782 for third in NHL history. You get the feeling he has unfinished business.

Wouldn't it be something if, after leading the Stars to the Cup in 1999 in his first NHL job, he bookended his career in the League with another championship in Dallas?

The Stars missed the playoffs last season. But they led the League in goals, won the Western Conference over Hitchcock's Blues and went to seven games in the Western Conference Second Round against Hitchcock's Blues in 2015-16.

The Stars improved the roster in the offseason, adding goaltender Ben Bishop, defenseman Marc Methot, and forwards Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov.

The Blues didn't have the Stars' speed and scoring. The Stars didn't have the Blues' team game. Now Hitchcock and the Stars could have both, if they work for it.

"We don't want teams talking about the Dallas Stars as just this high-scoring, offensive team, because defense ultimately wins championships," said Benn, who won the NHL scoring title in 2014-15 and was a finalist for MVP in 2015-16. "We want people talking that we're a well-rounded team, that we can play defense and that we're hard to play against.

"Honestly, I hope we play similar to the St. Louis style. [The Blues] were hard to play against, and that was Ken Hitchcock hockey."

Video: Hitchcock discusses his return to Dallas

* * * * *

Hitchcock spent the offseason talking to everyone from staff members to players to prepare for training camp, which opens in Cedar Park, Texas, on Friday.

"I've talked to a lot of guys about what the foundation has to be in our team game," Hitchcock said. "The foundation has to be on compete and character. I've talked to the players a lot about what that looks and feels like.

"We want to compete at the puck much harder than we did. You can't be a good team if you don't have a highly competitive level at the puck, and that's what we want to increase. That's what the good teams do."

Center Tyler Seguin said he has already met with Hitchcock six or seven times.

Video: Seguin on the change in Stars offensive strategy

"We're going to be tougher," Seguin said. "We're going to be meaner. We're going to be better defensively. And to top it off, I think we're still going to be a team that can score a heck of a lot of goals.

"He's just going to want us to compete."

But Hitchcock has always leaned hard on his captains. He will tell you he worries about the big picture, not the day to day. Translation: He worries about the team's needs, not necessarily the individual players in the moment. His captain translates, or tempers, his message to the others.

Keith Primeau once said that when he captained Hitchcock's Philadelphia Flyers, he had to learn to separate the message from the delivery. Once he did, he separated them for his teammates.

"'He's in command of the ship, and it's my responsibility to get you guys to understand what it is he's saying and just hold everybody accountable to that standard,'" Primeau once said.

"There were many times I had to walk guys off the cliff at the back of the bus after games because they weren't listening to the message. They were listening to how the message was delivered. Instead of hearing what he had to say, they were too busy licking their wounds.

"And that's all it's about. It's about making the team better, it's about unifying the group and it's about winning hockey games."

Video: Stars name Hitchcock head coach in 1996

Benn will be expected to do the same.

"He's got to look after the daily accountability, and then it's my job to have his back all the time," Hitchcock said. "Trying to really build that trust that you need with your captain. …

"It's easy to be a captain when everything's going well, but the real test between the coach and the captain happens when it doesn't go well. I wanted to work real hard with Jamie to build his confidence that he could deal with the issues that need to get dealt with and be a really good player.

"He's our best player, and we need him to be that type of player. So we need him without any gray areas as far as leading goes."

At least to start, it seems black and white.

"I'm definitely ready for that," Benn said. "I want to have a bigger role, and I think he's worked with great leaders in the past, and I'm sure they've taught him a thing or two too. So just through the experiences, I think we can help each other, and I definitely think he can turn me into a better leader."

* * * * *

You can hear it in his voice. Hitchcock can't wait for camp.

"This is the greatest time to be a coach because you're teaching," Hitchcock said. "You're instructing. You're identifying. You're picking your team. You're not worried about the other teams. You're not looking at standings. You're just flat teaching and coaching.

"And this is an exciting time for us, because we're not the only ones who are excited. So are the players. There are some players who are excited to make amends for last year, but others are excited because they see what we see. They see a real opportunity here potential-wise."

At the same time, Hitchcock stresses how "bloody hard" this is going to be. The Stars are in the Central Division with the Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators.

That's why he started so early on his foundation.

"Teams like Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis and Chicago have all been in the playoffs for a long time collectively, and to be in the playoffs every year, you've got to be really a team in every sense of the word," Hitchcock said. "And that's the part we've got to catch up.

"We know we have skill. We know we have talent. But that's the part we've got to get to real quick, because they're not going to give away any points to us early in the season."

That's why he started so early with Benn.

"It's not just your captain has a voice," Hitchcock said. "Your captain is also the identity of your team. The way you want to play is usually the way your captain plays, and he's a perfect example of the way we want to play. I want as many people on board that way as I can get."

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