The day Ken Hitchcock entered American Airlines Center to be reintroduced as the Dallas Stars head coach, he bumped into a familiar face in the hallway of the arena.
It was Dallas Mavericks 38-year-old legend Dirk Nowitzki, who as a youngster during Hitchcock’s first stint in Big D, wowed the Stars coach.
“I used to walk by every day when I went to the rink and when I went to the games. Their offices were just right down the hall and their practice facility – I used to watch those guys practice all the time and their practice facility was 30 yards from where our locker room was so I saw a lot of them then,” Hitchcock said. “I saw him when he first came here. You could see how good he was then and to have the type of career he’s had is just incredible. He still looks like he can play forever. He’s … that’s a generational player.”
Seeing Nowitzki and some familiar faces at the building gave a sense of ease for Hitchcock, but also an understanding of how much time had flown by since his first stint with Dallas.
Nowitzki is no longer the fresh-faced youngster on a path to NBA superstardom like he was in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Stars also have a completely different owner, management group and roster than 1995-96 through 2001-02 when Hitchcock was last there. They also have a different set of problems they need Hitchcock to fix.
“I think overall I want guys excited to come back and I know it’s going to be a long summer but I want guys excited to get ready for next year and that’s what we’re trying to do is get everybody – we’ve learned our lesson, we know what happened and now let’s move this thing forward,” Hitchcock said.
Though a lot of NHL teams have tried to use nostalgia in coaching or management to reinvigorate their franchises, this wasn’t exactly the case with Dallas’ choice to bring in Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999. Really his defense-first philosophy was the best fit for the Stars and their best opportunity to turn the team around after a down year that saw the organization miss the playoffs and fire coach Lindy Ruff after the season.
“Ken is an exceptionally talented coach and we could not be happier to have him joining the organization,” Nill said when Hitchcock was hired. “He is a meticulous coach who brings with him an emphasis on structure and a defensive style of play, which will accent our level of skill nicely. Ken has an incredible hockey mind and we look forward to his guidance on the ice.”
After Ruff took over as Stars coach in the 2013-14 season, the team allowed 2.95 goals per-game from that year through this past season, which ranked 27th in the NHL over that stretch. Though they scored 2.97 goals per-game, this wasn’t enough to offset Dallas’ defensive struggles.
The only year the Stars found some semblance of balance was 2015-16 when they scored 3.23 goals per-game and allowed 2.78 goals per-game and led the Western Conference in points.
Meanwhile Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues were consistently one of the top defensive teams in the NHL over that stretch. They allowed 2.43 goals per-game during that span – though Hitchcock didn’t coach a full season this year – and scored 2.84 goals per-game.
Hitchcock said his system doesn’t simply preach defense over offense. It’s more about positional play, managing the puck and taking away the types of higher risk plays that have burned Dallas defensively in the past.
“The teams that I’ve coached never get enough credit for what they do with the puck,” Hitchcock said. “The reason we’ve always had great defensive numbers is the way we manage the game and I think these players will be really receptive to that because it’s all just about playing smart and I think if I can teach those guys that we’re not giving up anything offensively to be smart with the puck, I think it’s going to make us better defensively right away.”
Interestingly, the 65-year-old Hitchcock really wasn’t supposed to be available for Dallas. Last year was supposed to be his final season in the NHL, but the Blues replaced him with ‘coach-in-waiting’ Mike Yeo in early February, rather than waiting for the end of the season.
After Hitchcock sat around and tried to figure out his future he decided he still had a fire to coach. When Stars general manager Jim Nill contacted Hitchcock, the coach was elated to take Nill’s call. Nill is one of the more respected hockey minds in the NHL and Hitchcock wanted to work with him.
“The big attraction for me is the chance to work for Jim Nill,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve known Jim for a little while now and I’m very impressed with what he does. I’ve been blessed with a lot of good general managers and the attraction for me is – I mean Dallas is Dallas. I love Dallas, I love the city, I love the people, I love everything about it. But the biggest attraction for me is this is a great opportunity for me to work with Jim.”
Looking at the Stars from afar this past season, Hitchcock saw a group with some of the top talent in the NHL that had lost its swagger. When Dallas finished with the top record in the Western Conference in 2015-16, they had a belief they could win any game. In 2016-17 that was no longer the case.
“I thought the two differences in the (two) years were a lot of games they played against us they had great intention, but this season for whatever they got a little discouraged from doing what they do so well and I want to bring back that confidence to keep going,” Hitchcock said. “There’s a brand of player that’s in place for Dallas and there’s a lot of them and there’s a lot of really good pieces but you have to have a lot of confidence to play that way and that type of energy going into it. I thought this year they lost confidence and then lost energy because of it.”
Hitchcock said he still watches the Blues, but more from a scouting perspective. He has followed the Stanley Cup Playoffs closely – especially the Central Division – so he can get prepared for next season to hit the ground running.
“I’m more looking at individual players but the two teams I’m watching Nashville – anybody I’m watching is in the Central Division to be honest with you,” Hitchcock said. “I watched every one of the Nashville, Chicago games. I watched the first two games of Minnesota, St. Louis, pretty much everything in the Central Division is what my focus is right now.”
There are some issues beyond Hitchcock’s control that need to be addressed. The team has $10.4 million invested annually into goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, who have struggled the last two seasons. Also, though Dallas should improve defensively with Hitchcock, the team still is quite young on the blue line. Another veteran could help stabilize that group.
But he does see a team that has a moldable foundation with superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin who can play his style. This should lead to immediate improvement with the Stars for next season.
“We’re trying to turn the corner real quick here so as I said to the players, you have the highs and the lows of the last two seasons and somewhere in between is where we’re at and if we want to get back up to the high we have to forget about what happened last year, learn from it but as much as we want to learn from it we can’t keep beating a dead horse,” Hitchcock said. “We have to move on and that’s what we’re doing.”
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