Why new Stars head coach Jim Montgomery will reap rewards from Ken Hitchcock’s groundwork

Editor’s note: This article originally published on April 13.

Whoever takes over the Stars will take over a better team next year because of Ken Hitchcock.

That was the sentiment of general manager Jim Nill after the organization announced Friday that Hitchcock will retire from coaching and begin a new career as a consultant with the organization.

Asked if the one-year experiment with Hitchcock as head coach could be considered a wasted season, Nill said to the contrary.

“I think Ken Hitchcock did some great things, and I don’t want that to go unknown,” Nill said. “There was a lot of growth here.

“I think what Ken Hitchcock has done in one year, the wealth of knowledge, how to play the game the right way … for our young kids to understand what it takes to win, I think that’s a big influence of Ken Hitchcock, and I think our next staff coming in is going to be rewarded because of the groundwork he did.”

Hitchcock, 66, announced his retirement Friday via a letter to the fans and said: “I have contemplated this since our last game, and I came to the conclusion that now is the right time to step away and let the younger generation of coaches take over.”

Hitchcock finishes third in NHL history in coaching wins at 823 and is the Stars’ franchise leader at 585. Hitchcock started his NHL head coaching career with Dallas in 1995 and also coached Philadelphia, Columbus and St. Louis. He rejoined the Stars last season in hopes of bringing the organization back to glory but finished 42-32-8 and missed the playoffs.

Nill said Hitchcock will get away from hockey for a few months before they sit down and decide how they will approach his new role.

In the meantime, Nill will immediately begin a search for Hitchcock’s replacement. The GM said he is open to all levels of experience but really wants a bench boss who will embrace the speed and youth that seem to be dominating today’s NHL.

“I want to be pretty open-minded about this,” Nill said. “You’re seeing some successful young coaches come in and some successful coaches out there that have some great résumés. The game is changing, and you have to evolve.”

Among the veteran coaches available are Alain Vigneault, 57, who was let go by the Rangers this month and interviewed for the Stars job in 2013, as well as Willie Desjardins, 61, a former Stars assistant and former head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

Younger coaches include Sheldon Keefe, 37, who has the AHL Toronto Marlies at 51-18-4, and Todd Nelson, 48, who led the Grand Rapids Griffins to the AHL championship last season.

Nill also said he would interview Texas Stars AHL coach Derek Laxdal, as well as any current NHL assistant coach who might be interested. He said the process could take some time.

One wild-card candidate is Carolina coach Bill Peters, 53. Peters has coached the Hurricanes for four seasons but has a provision in his contract under which he can talk to other teams.

Carolina has a new owner and no GM at the moment, so Peters might be open to joining Nill, who worked with Peters in Detroit from 2011-13. Nill said he wants to bring some of the Red Wings’ possession style of play but also said the Stars have to figure out their own way of doing things.

He said the interviews can be educational for both sides.

“We’ll go through all of that,” Nill said of the process. “Are they a good fit for our team? Do they play fast? What’s their style? That’s always the interesting part. A lot of times you think you know them, but you don’t.”

Nill said decisions on what the staff of assistant coaches will look like next season will be made in concert with the new coach, but he added that he believes a lot of good was accomplished this season, thanks to Hitchcock.

“To have him help build this foundation, it’s going to pay dividends for us down the road,” Nill said. “I know he made a lot of these players a lot better, and we want to thank him for everything he did.”

Near the top

Ken Hitchcock finishes his career with the third most regular-season coaching wins in NHL history. Here are the top five:

No., Coach Wins
1. Scotty Bowman 1,244
2. Joel Quenneville 884
3. Ken Hitchcock 823
4. Al Arbour 782
5. Barry Trotz 762

Staff concerns

Ken Hitchcock leaves behind a veteran staff of assistant coaches. General manager Jim Nill said that he will wait for input from a new head coach before he makes decisions on the staff. Here is the current staff:

Assistant coach Rick Wilson: Ran defense and penalty kill, served as acting head coach of Stars for four months when Hitchcock was released in 2002.

Assistant coach Curt Fraser: Helped run practices and set daily plans, has been with Stars for five seasons, coached Atlanta Thrashers from 1999-2003.

Assistant coach Stu Barnes: Helped with forwards and power play, in his first season back with Stars, also served as assistant coach in Dallas from 2008-11.

Goalie coach Jeff Reese: In his second season with the Stars; spent six years with Flyers and 10 years with Lightning in similar capacity.

Video coach Kelly Forbes: Helped break down video during and after games to provide coaches insight on players and opponents; longest standing member of staff with eight years in Dallas.