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Rookie no more, Montgomery aims to build on 'good foundation'

Stars coach believes team can take next step with knowledge gained in successful first season

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Jim Montgomery told us in September that his teams tend to get better as the season goes on.

Boy, was he right about that.

And if the Stars follow the same path as Montgomery's previous teams, they'll also get better the next season, and the season after that.

"I learned a lot," said the first-year Stars coach who will turn 50 on June 30. "Now that I'm looking back, we got better not as quickly as I'd hoped, but I liked our team at the end of the year. I liked our group, I liked our people. There was caring, there was trust. That's a good foundation for us."

 

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The Stars went 19-11-3 after the All-Star break, the second best record in the Western Conference. They beat Central Division champion Nashville in the first round of the playoffs and lost to St. Louis in double overtime of Game 7 in the second round. It was a successful debut for a man who had not coached in any capacity at the NHL level before this season.

Video: Montgomery thanks Stars' leadership group for work

"We're a results-oriented business, and Monty got us to the second round. For a first-year coach, he did a good job," Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "He went from dealing with college players to dealing with NHL players who are making big money and are the best in the world, and they all want their piece of the pie, ice time and everything else -- and you have to deal with that.

"Overall, I think Monty did a great job, his staff did a great job."

Maybe the best part of Montgomery's first season was the evaluation from his players. He walked in and earned their trust pretty quickly by mixing an open-discussion coaching style with high expectations.

"It's different," said center Tyler Seguin. "It's just his personality. I don't know if you want to call him a player's coach, because he can be a drill sergeant as well. But there's communication there. Any time he had first year coaching things happen, he adapted quickly. We always believed in the process and we always believed in the game plan, and we bought in."

Montgomery is an interesting mix of influences. His greatest teacher was probably his dad, James "Jimmy" Montgomery, who coached him at the youth level and offered guidance throughout his playing career, which included a four-year stint at the University of Maine and 12 years at different levels as a professional player. James passed away in 2015, but Montgomery said the lessons he learned from his dad come up every day. Add to that the fact he grew up in hockey-mad Montreal, and you can see that he got a drive for perfection.

Video: Seguin sees a foundation in place for future success

But mixed into that is the fact he coached in the USHL for three seasons and in college hockey for 10 (including five as the head coach at the University of Denver). That experience taught him to deal with younger players who have been raised in a different way, both when it comes to discipline and in use of technology.

"I think he does a great job of explaining things and making sure we understand things," said 23-year-old forward Jason Dickinson. "At the same time, I think he also lets you know if you're not doing things the right way. There's no room for misinterpretation -- he lets you know where you stand."

That balance allows Montgomery to deal with a lot of different situations. While he can be old school at times, he also knows how to finesse things.

"When you look at society, it's a different society nowadays, and he communicates with players in a different way," Nill said. "We would come down and talk and he would say, 'I'm going to do this,' and I'm a little bit older than he is, and I would walk out of there saying, `Boy, I don't know if this is going to fly,' … and it flew.

"I give him credit. He has a strong belief in what he does, and it's successful. We had a lot of things go on in the season, every team does, and he handled it the right way. He pushed the right buttons, and it showed."

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

When you consider what Montgomery and his players had to deal with, it was a challenging year. This was the third head coach in three seasons for the players, so they had to adjust. Meanwhile, three key players (defenseman Stephen Johns, defenseman Marc Methot and center Martin Hanzal) were lost for the year due to injuries, and that forced the coaching staff to move pieces around.

"We had growing pains, which was natural," said Seguin. "It's not easy going through three coaches in three years. It is tough. But we bought in, and really since the All-Star break, we turned the page."

Which makes you think that next year could be even better. Yes, the team has some personnel decisions to make with unrestricted free agents like Mats Zuccarello, Jason Spezza, Ben Lovejoy and Roman Polak. Yes, there is the possibility the organization opens the door for even more youth next season.

But if the Stars got through the challenges of this season as well as they did, and will return the core of the team and have all of the experience of the season with the coaching staff, the guess is they are already miles ahead of where they started in 2018-19.

"Everything is going to be easier next year. The games aren't going to be easy, but our relationships, the language that we use, we should start the season a much more consistent team," Montgomery said. "We'll have our ups and downs at some point, but I think the beginning of the year -- the first month -- should be pretty smooth as far as us getting off the ground."

Video: Benn sees 'lots of potential' in Stars moving forward

And that means the Stars can push for improvement in individual stats, as well as team goals. It can try to rise from 29th in the league in scoring. It can try to improve its power-play opportunities, which also ranked 29th. It can try to improve a shot differential of minus-0.9 that ranked 18th in the NHL.

"It should be different, just going through a month of the playoffs," said captain Jamie Benn. "Those four months after the All-Star break, we found our game and found out what we have to do to win in this league. And it's going to be fun to have that in our minds at the start of the season next year and try to get off to an even better start."

Of course, a better finish is also part of the plan. It always is when Montgomery is coaching a team.

"We should be setting our expectations a lot higher now. A lot of things have changed, so we've got the foundation, so let's keep going," said Seguin, who starts an eight-year contract extension next season.

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm good with this coach for the next eight years at least."

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.

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