A year after finishing first in the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars were barely recognisable last season, crashing from 109 to 78 points and not surprisingly, out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The collapse resulted in head coach Lindy Ruff not being invited back for a fifth season, replaced by 65-year-old Ken Hitchcock, who took Dallas to their only Stanley Cup triumph, in 1999.
Hitchcock spent 50 games of last year coaching the St. Louis Blues before being fired, and had planned to retire before receiving a call from the Stars. Short of suggesting he should’ve retired anyway, it’s uncertain whether he still has what it takes to coach Cup-contending NHL teams.
Dallas Stars go Back to the Future with Ken Hitchcock
‘Let’s not get confused – ‘Hitch’ is still a great hockey person, and a good coach, but whether he belongs in this position with a team of Dallas’ aspirations is unknown. Whether he’s right for the Stars, period, is another matter altogether.
Before we even get to how a Hitchcock team operates on the ice, Stars Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano raised an interesting off-ice point. A pupil from the class of ’99, Modano commented on his former coach’s temperament, and how it may affect the modern NHLer.
“The personnel, the players have changed,” Modano said on Dallas Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket. “The common athlete today is a little sensitive. They liked to be talked to a little gentler. They don’t like to be yelled at.”
“They think they can play better if they’re just patted on the shoulder and sweet talked a little bit. I think [Hitchcock will] come in and snap the whip.”
With whom may the whip hit hardest? Modano tipped a gentle nod in the direction of a few players.
“I think Jamie Benn is kind of on that verge of being that real good two-way guy.
“He’s the type of guy you can say, hey, you gotta go out there against Anze Koptiar. You gotta go out there against Johnny Gaudreau and you gotta play against other team’s top lines.
“I can see him kind of leaning towards Tyler Seguin‘s issues where he’s got to be a little better without the puck.
“He’s got to be responsible. He does have the speed and the ability to turn mistakes into offense. So if he’s in the right position at the right time checking hard he’s going to get those pucks. With his speed and creativity he can turn that into offense.”
Dealing With Top Talent
In those stanzas, Modano nailed the balance Hitchcock will need to find in order to have success in his second stint in Texas. He will demand defensive intensity out of his Stars – especially his superstars – and will hold them accountable to keep the puck, and fight for it back on defence.
Benn, his captain, is almost there, but Seguin is a player likely to be feast or famine with this style. Coming off his lowest points total (72) since 2011-12, he will take on a lot of responsibility this season taking over the starting center role, and Hitchcock will have to make sure he avoids burnout.
“I’ve got to get Tyler to start thinking like a ‘one’”, Hitchcock told Mark Stepneski of the club’s official website, referring to the role of a number one center.
“That means he has to be out there in critical spaces all of the time. He has to kill penalties, he has to play against the other team’s top players.
“He has to be out there at the start of games, he has to be out there at the end of games. That’s what a ‘one’ does.”
“Since I’ve come to Dallas, I’ve wanted to be a number one centerman,” Seguin said.
“I know he’s going to be hard on me, but I want to make this work.”
New Signings and Young Players
Also of intrigue will be how Hitchcock deals with marquee signing Alexander Radulov. He did not work out with the Nashville Predators, showing signs of ill discipline, but looked to have grown up in his return to the League with the Montreal Canadiens last year.
He will also be asking a lot from defencemen such as John Klingberg, Marc Methot, and the young Esa Lindell, from who a lot will be expected this season. With such a thin blue line, Hitchcock’s tone will need to be set by those whose primary job is defence.
“I don’t think Hitch is going to get us out of our scoring ways, but he’s going to teach us how to play defense,” Benn told Dallas Sports Daily.
“The defensive side is obviously huge in today’s game. The best teams play great team defense, and most of the best players play a good two-way game. I think Hitch is going to keep us accountable.”
Hold them accountable he may, and it could prove the tonic this Dallas team needs to re-find their 2015-16 hockey. Hitchcock mentioned himself he sees plenty of zero-to-hero in his new old team, and that he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t.
Back to the Playoffs
“I really think this team has the players for a quick turnaround,” Hitchcock said.
“I saw the reckless energy and I saw the spirit that this team played with, and I thought I could really help.
“I saw something special in the captain, I saw something special in the good players, and I saw something special in the spirit. I know I can get that back quickly.”
“To me, Dallas Stars hockey is reckless energy with proper positional play. I’ll bring that forward, but I don’t ever want to lose that reckless energy that they had last year.”
Even if this is the best-case scenario, the team is still going against the grain of fast, modern hockey, with a new hc of nearly 70, largely set in his ways. Was this a wise hire for the Stars? That remains uncertain, given Hitchcock’s age, play style, and roster makeup.
Was this even a good hire for the here and now? The jury is still out on that too.
KANSAS CITY, MO – OCTOBER 05: Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues watches from the bench during the preseason game against Washington Capitals at Sprint Center on October 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)