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Rick Wilson looks to bring consistency to Stars defense

The veteran assistant coach brings a wealth of experience, calmness, and communication skills

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

CEDAR PARK, Texas -- Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson knows what he wants to establish with the team's group of defensemen.

"A level of confident consistency in their game as a group where they are effectively efficient and help us produce something," he said.

And he knows how to get them there.

"Slowly," he said with a laugh.

"There are trust factors that have to be developed. In some cases, just little tweaks to tactics, technique or whatever. Nothing major," Wilson said. "These are good players, good players. It's just a level of confidence and team game, their game. Hopefully, try to find the right chemistry because there are new players that come in like Marc Methot. We've got to find everybody's best role."

Wilson, who was hired as an assistant in June, began his work with the defenseman well before the Stars hit the ice for training camp. He met individually with each defenseman to get a read on the player.

"He was just getting an idea of what everyone expected this year and what he expects of us," said defenseman Stephen Johns. "It was kind of getting a feel for each other. Obviously, he doesn't know any of us, so he is trying to get to know us on a personal level."

A start to that slow process.

"It was getting an understanding of who they are, what they think, where they've been," Wilson said. "What they think of themselves, where they might be strong or weak. Just a beginning phase. First step."

While Wilson is still getting to know his defenseman, he is familiar with Dallas, the Stars organization, and head coach Ken Hitchcock. He was an assistant coach when the Stars moved to Dallas from Minnesota in 1993 and stayed with the organization through 2009. He worked as an assistant under Hitchcock from 1996 to 2002, winning a Stanley Cup in 1999, and then hooked up with Hitchcock again in St. Louis last season.

His family never left Dallas, so he feels like he never left the city either.

"It's not like coming back. It's more like now I can stay," Wilson said. "And I have nothing but fond memories of the Stars."

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When the Stars hired Hitchcock in April, it was a given that Wilson's hiring wasn't far behind considering their history. Hitchcock believes Wilson, who has coached in the NHL for 28 seasons, is the perfect guy to get the best out of the Stars' group of defensemen.

"Rick is going to bring the group together," Hitchcock said. "He's going to do things from an accountability standpoint that players don't think as punishment because he does it with a teaching mentality. But he is relentless in the teaching mode."

Wilson's teaching has been noticeable early in training camp. It's not unusual to see him skate over to one of the defenseman after an on-ice drill for a brief chat.

"He's been communicating with us really well," said Johns. "Anytime he sees anything we need to work on he comes right over to us and tells us how to do it. He's been a good guy to lean on so far."

Stars analyst Craig Ludwig said Wilson's ability to communicate is what makes him such a good coach. Ludwig should know. He played under Wilson at the University of North Dakota in 1979-80 and then in the NHL with both the North Stars and Stars from 1992 to 1999.

"He will get a defenseman to understand who he is," said Ludwig. "He has a demeanor when he talks to you that is like a father talking to a kid instead of a coach talking to him. And what happens is you feel comfortable listening to him. And you'll find once you get into the process you go to him to find out if you are doing this right and asking if that is what you mean."

Methot, one of the team's key offseason acquisitions, already has noticed Wilson's demeanor and can see the benefits.

"He's an excellent communicator," Methot said. "He's a really easy guy to talk to which is always a good thing back there. Very easy to calm guys down especially when you have some younger guys when you are coaching as well. I think that will be a huge bonus for us to have him there."

Wilson doesn't see anything unique in what he does. He's simply coaching.

"Coaches, all around the league or anywhere, have to be able to impart knowledge, information, direction," Wilson said. "In mind with that, establish a level of accountability. I would sense that is everybody in this job at this level."

And among the tools in Wilson's coaching toolbox is repetition. A lot of repetition. Repetition that will pay dividends, according to Ludwig.

"It sounds simple, but you can see in the practices now these guys are going to do things over and over and over," Ludwig said. "You'll think it is monotonous and repetitive, but they'll learn it is automatic. They'll learn right where they are supposed to be. And that's what he'll get across to the young guys."

And with a defense that leans towards the younger side, Hitchcock believes Wilson is the guy to help them get their game in the right place.

"We need someone who can teach quickly the idea we have of what's the proper way to play defense," Hitchcock said. "I think this group wants to learn; they want to get better. We see tremendous potential. It's one of the biggest groups I've seen, and there is lots to work with."

There are still issues to be resolved on the blue line. The Stars have nine likely NHL defensemen on the roster in camp, and they can't carry them all. They've carried eight the past two seasons, but it could be just seven this season.

Whether they carry seven or eight, Hitchcock and Wilson want to establish a top six and run with that group as long as it is clicking. In other words, no rotating people in and out just to rotate.

"We are not interested in a group of eight. We are just interested in six. Whether we carry eight or whatever we do, that will be up to [GM] Jim [Nill] and his staff. But we are not going to rotate," Hitchcock said. "When you get into that group of six, you've got to work hard to stay there. If you're not in there, then you've got to work hard when it is your chance. We're looking to get that group of six solidified right away."

Preseason games will determine how Hitchcock and Wilson sort out the defense as they try to establish that top six, and no doubt those games will guide Nill as he makes roster decisions. But it's still early and there's a lot of work to be done.

"It takes time," Wilson said. "It takes time."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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