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'Blue-collar coach' Laxdal, Stars seem like perfect fit

A product of overcoming adversity with hard work, new assistant joins Dallas after six seasons leading club's AHL affiliate

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

DALLAS -- All it takes is one scan of Derek Laxdal's career stats to see he knows how to adjust.

The Stars' newest assistant coach played for 13 teams in his professional career and has coached five teams in a 21-year coaching career. He has seen quite a bit in that time, and that should help ease his step up to the NHL.

"I look at my coaching career as very fortunate," said Laxdal, 53, who was promoted after spending six seasons as head coach of the AHL's Texas Stars.

"I've been able to win some championships and get to some big games, and while it takes time, I do believe I've always been getting a promotion or a step up, so I see all of that as encouraging."

Laxdal is one of the most interesting cogs in the transition for the Stars after it was announced Tuesday that coach Jim Montgomery had been fired. Rick Bowness moves to interim coach, but he was a big part of formulating the game plan the past two seasons and his changes all seem very doable. John Stevens moves into Bowness' place coaching the defensemen, but Stevens has run defenses a ton in his 22-year coaching career. Laxdal goes from being a head coach in the AHL to helping assist on an NHL bench and taking control of an NHL power play.

It's a lot to digest, but Laxdal understands the process.

He started as an assistant with the Odessa Jackalopes in the old CHL, moved on to become coach of Wichita in that same league, and then moved into the Stars organization in 2005, becoming coach of the team's ECHL affiliate in Idaho. He led the Steelheads to the finals twice there, including wining it all in 2007. He then coached the Edmonton Oil Kings in major junior and won two championships there, before returning to the Stars to coach the AHL affiliate in 2014. The Texas Stars lost in the Calder Cup Finals in 2018.

Video: Laxdal discusses his unexpected transition to Stars

That's a pretty impressive resume.

"He's won wherever he has been," said Stars assistant general manager Scott White when Laxdal was coaching the Stars' prospects in Traverse City, Mich. in September. "I know that his time is going to come in the NHL."

That it happened like this isn't ideal, but Laxdal has shown he can be pretty flexible. He jumped in his truck, drove up to Dallas on Tuesday morning and helped the team to a 2-0 win over New Jersey that night. The team went 0-for-5 on the power play, so he does have some work to do.

"If you look at the game Tuesday night, we had some good looks off the rush and hit a couple of posts. In zone, we were just a little disorganized," Laxdal said. "So if we can clean up the execution in the (offensive) zone, these guys are good hockey players. Once you run your set plays, you let them play hockey and these guys can make plays at high speed."

Bowness said changes will come for the Stars because different people are making decisions, but he also added that he's liked a lot of what has happened with the team during the 17-4-2 run they are on. While the Stars are winning and the power play was on a 7-for-18 stretch over seven games before the coaching change, Bowness said that is an area where change might be welcomed.

Tyler Seguin led the team in power-play goals last season with nine. He has yet to score a man-advantage goal this season. Joe Pavelski made a living in San Jose by tipping pucks in front of the net. He has been used in that role only sparingly in Dallas.

"Listen, Tyler led this team in power-play goals last year and we've got to get him shooting the puck," Bowness said when asked about possible changes. "There's no question whether it's on the strong side or the weak side one-timers, he's got to put pucks on net. … We've just got to keep letting him shoot."

Video: Pavelski on adjusting to Laxdal, continuing to work

Finding a way to make that happen will fall to Laxdal. Those who played for him in the AHL said he liked to get consistent units and let those units develop chemistry.

"We got to the point where we really knew where each other was," said Justin Dowling, who was one of the team's offensive leaders in Cedar Park. "You get that through chemistry and repetition. When you have an extra guy, you don't have to see him, you just have to know he's there. When I was on the halfwall there, I always knew I had somebody in the middle of the ice, and that just made everything work."

Laxdal said he doesn't want to give away any secrets, and also said he's going to have to learn the skills of the NHL players.

"It's different," he said. "Obviously, these guys are NHL players and they've got some set ways. We're just trying to give them information and try to take a step and be a little bit more efficient."

Laxdal is in a good place as far as understanding both veterans and young players. He leaned heavily on players like Dowling and Travis Morin to find success in the AHL, but also helped many of the younger Stars players develop. Among the players who have spent time with Laxdal are Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, Jason Dickinson and Esa Lindell.

"He was really good with my development," Dickinson said. "He encouraged me to be what I was and not what I wasn't. You've got to find that balance, because some guys like myself figured, `Oh if I score points, I'm going to make the NHL,' and that's not always the case. You've got to find that balance, and he really helped me embrace that."

Juggling an AHL roster isn't easy. Players are trying to move up, so you often lose your best players. And when a prospect comes back after a stint in the NHL, he's usually disappointed. But Laxdal found the right buttons to push and helped develop prospects and won some games.

Video: Bowness breaks down first full practice leading Stars

"That year we went to the Calder Cup Final, he found the balance for that team," Dickinson said. "It was the balance of teaching us how to make the step to the next level and also winning the games we were playing. That's a tough job."

Laxdal has found a way to work through the tough jobs by focusing on each individual challenge. Asked to describe himself, he said: "I do think I'm a blue-collar coach. I really try to work hard and show up every day."

Laxdal said he looks back and sees good things in every decision he made. His four-year run with the Oil Kings included three trips to the finals and two WHL championships, and also allowed him to understand the mind of the young athlete better.

"It was really important, and it really helped me," Laxdal said. "To get a chance to work with the young players was a great opportunity. I learned a lot in how they process information, how they deal with social media, just how they are different than we were.

"A lot of the young kids are visual learners, and so you have to teach that. It's a young man's league, and you have to be able to communicate with the young players on a daily basis."

That's something Laxdal hopes he can add to the Stars coaching staff at this turbulent time. After all, he understands what this team is going through. His Texas Stars also started the year 1-7 and then went on an impressive winning streak.

"It makes you a stronger person," Laxdal said. "If you can fight through adversity in a game or in a season or in your career, it just makes you stronger. I look at what Texas has done this year with a tough start and I know how much we learned down there. Dallas had a tough start and look at this team now."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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