While some veteran coaches are talking about de-emphasizing or even eliminating the morning skate, first-year Stars bench boss Jim Montgomery is starting to see the practice as one that could be crucial to the performance of his team.
"One of the frustrating things I've found is that when we have a slow start or don't have the focus I think we should, you go back and you could see that was there in the morning," Montgomery said. "So it's been an area where you can kind of see the connection."
The Stars rank last in the NHL in first-period goals at 18, and have been notoriously slow starters this season, so a lot has gone into dissecting why. Montgomery said he is looking at morning skates as a possible reason.
Because the NHL schedule is so varied, teams are forced to make choices on having full morning skates or optional morning skates. The Stars this season have had full practices the day before and then followed with optional morning skates. Or, they have held an optional practice the day before and followed with a full morning skate. The problem with the full morning skate is that players are only on the ice for 15 or 20 minutes, and each likes to prepare a different way.
Montgomery held a full morning skate Dec. 18 against Calgary and blew up a few minutes into one of the first drills. He said the urgency of the focus in the short time span can be intense. As a result, he typically is not on the ice for optional morning skates and lets the assistant coaches handle the drills.
"When it's optional, I don't go out because I get really frustrated, like you saw the other morning I was frustrated," he said. "But when we all go out, whether we're doing it for eight minutes or 18 minutes, I expect us to have a purpose to what we're doing. A lot of times we haven't had that purpose, and it's really correlated to slow starts."
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The Stars in that Calgary game appeared to have focus in a 2-0 victory. Two nights later, they had an optional morning skate against Chicago and got behind 3-0 en route to a 5-2 loss.
So is there a cause and effect? It's something the Stars coaching staff is studying.
Of course, there are all sorts of variables in the process. One is how each individual prepares himself. Some players like structured diligence in their preparation, some players prefer breezy individualism -- and the morning skate is a place when players sort of take control of themselves. Montgomery said Alexander Radulov is a free spirit who loves to work on his shot in the morning. So how do you adjust to that?
"Sometimes, you've got to let guys and morning skates be themselves," Montgomery said. "A perfect example is Rads likes to shoot pucks from everywhere at the morning skate -- that's how he gets ready at the morning skate. If I expect him to be perfect in our drills, I'm just going to get frustrated, because he's not going to get frustrated."
So, then, like it is with pretty much every element of coaching, you have to find a way to mix individuals with the team concept.
That's something Montgomery is learning after spending most of his career coaching college students. There, he had plenty of preparation time and plenty of focus in a 30-something game season. Here, he has to navigate an 82-game slate with players who often embrace a "there's always next game" mindset.
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"Our mental preparation ... as a group, we don't prepare well enough," Montgomery said. "I think that that's why you see the third periods the way they are (where the team also has had letdowns), and I think that's why you see it on back-to-backs (where the team is 1-6-0 on the second night). I don't have, obviously, my finger on it. I hope it would be better."
Montgomery even said before a 3-1 loss to the Islanders Sunday that he sees this as a great change from when he played. The now-49-year-old played 122 NHL games from 1993-2003, but he also was in plenty of camps and played 530 minor league games. He said the player personality is different than when he was a player.
"The responsibility as a professional in the National Hockey League is for you to be prepared to play," Montgomery said. "And that's the one thing I've told a lot of people that's different from when I was here as a player. It was like guys were ready to go, it was ultra. If you weren't ready to go you, were going to get hurt. You know? I know that these guys, they're better athletes, but I don't know if they're as tough."
And so to be able to manage that, he will try several things -- and one might be to start holding more full morning skates. Because of the NHL's holiday break, the Stars will practice at American Airlines Center on Thursday morning and then fly to Nashville for a game that night.
It will, again, be a challenge to the preparation skills of this team and its coaching staff.
"Over 82 games, it's individuals preparing the right way so that they can execute their role," Montgomery said. "As coaches, we've got to give them the right plan and we've got to make sure that they're thinking about doing the right things."
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, and listen to his podcast.