The Dallas Stars announced on Friday that Ken Hitchcock is retiring from coaching after 22 years, leaving the Stars’ bench after only one season to become a consultant with the team. So we asked our NHL experts:
Who should be the next Stars coach?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: No retreads. The Stars literally just tried that twice, with Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock. Go with a newbie who has earned the shot: Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the AHL Toronto Marlies.
Keefe, 37, played three seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning before retiring in 2004. He spent three seasons at Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL, and then graduated to the Marlies in 2015, following his OHL GM, Kyle Dubas, to the Toronto Maple Leafs organ-i-zation. Keefe has compiled a winning percentage of over .650 in three seasons there.
He’s a forward-thinking coach, one who shares Dubas’ affinity for analytics. He’s one who puts in 15-hour days, but also one who isn’t timid when it comes to emphatically voicing his disapproval if players aren’t competing to his standards. A rising star in the coaching ranks if there ever was one.
He’s going to be in demand — the New York Rangers, for example, could be a suitor. That’s a sexy job, but so is the chance to coach Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn for a team that, with some good health and a few tweaks, could be playoff bound again in 2019.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Here’s the thing about the Stars: They need a few tweaks, but they’re poised to win. Yes, they had a bit of an end-of-the-season meltdown, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that there are systematic problems with that roster (as long as goalie Ben Bishop, as well as other free agents GM Jim Nill has brought in, can stay healthy). With that said, Nill might be inclined toward hiring someone with experience as his team’s next coach. Jack Capuano, Dave Cameron or Dave Tippett could easily step in. Alain Vigneault could also fit in, but does Dallas want — or need — to pay the salary he would command?
If Nill wants an up-and-comer, 46-year-old Pascal Vincent was just named the AHL Coach of the Year. A former Winnipeg Jets assistant, Vincent took the Manitoba Moose job in 2016 to get experience being the No. 1 guy. Manitoba finished with the third-worst record in the AHL the season before Vincent arrived; they’re a playoff team now, while providing a steady pipeline for the Jets.
Geoff Ward is an assistant in New Jersey who has done great work coaching the Devils’ forward group. Ward has experience as a head man in the German DEL. Longtime NHL player Tim Hunter has done a tremendous job with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. It might seem like a jump to the NHL, but he’s well-respected in NHL circles.
But my last suggestion is the most exciting one: Rikard Gronborg is the Swedish National Team coach and has worked with just about every Swede in the NHL today — and they swear by him. Gronborg has North American roots — he played at St. Cloud State — and it seems like a matter of when, not if, he’ll be coaching in the NHL. So why not in Dallas?
Chris Peters, NHL prospects columnist: Ken Hitchcock’s statement that he specifically said he wanted to “let the younger generation of coaches take over” stood out. Now, there are a lot of coaches younger than the 66-year-old Hitchcock, but I wonder if this means that the Stars might look for a fresh face as opposed to some of the highly accomplished retreads that are already available, most notably Vigneault and Dave Tippett.
There are a few options out there who would fit this category, but the one I’m zeroing in on who is the hottest coaching candidate in the NCAA — Denver’s Jim Montgomery. If there’s one thing the Stars have lacked in recent years, it’s a firm identity and culture. We never really know what to make of them. Now, that might sound like nothing more than coachspeak, but I look at what John Hynes has done with the New Jersey Devils and the culture he is building there. The same goes for what Mike Sullivan brought to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In my years of covering college and junior hockey, the person I most identify with culture-building is Montgomery. And that culture-building has led to championships.
In the USHL, Montgomery took an expansion team in the Dubuque Fighting Saints, built it up from scratch and won a championship in Year 1 with a team led by Johnny Gaudreau. A less star-laden team won the Clark Cup again two years later. Then he got hired to replace the legendary and popular George Gwozdecky in Denver, one of college hockey’s most storied programs. Within four seasons, Montgomery led the Pioneers to the national title while shepherding future NHLers Will Butcher, Troy Terry, Danton Heinen, Henrik Borgstrom and a host of others. The guy just wins.
It’s harder for a college coach to come into a veteran dressing room, and Dallas has a lot of established guys. That said, I think Montgomery has a track record that proves he knows what he’s doing. He did have a brief NHL career, if that matters at all anymore. Maybe he’s a better fit on a younger team, a team that has some time and room to grow, but if I’m Jim Nill, I want to at least make a call and see if there’s a fit.