Even though the Dallas Stars’ playoff run ended early, head coach Jim Montgomery deserves every bit of praise he has received since the team’s late-season surge. The first-year NHL coach was the right blend of new and old school given the mix of youth and veterans on the roster. What allowed Montgomery to grow, though, was the support of the trio that flanked him behind the bench. Assistant coaches Todd Nelson, Rick Bowness and Stu Barnes played pivotal roles in Dallas this season and deserve the recognition they’re receiving from other NHL teams.
After initially being rumored as a candidate to take over as the Stars’ head coach, Nelson was hired as an assistant shortly after Montgomery took the helm. His prior experience as an NHL bench boss was brief—serving as the interim in Edmonton in 2014-15, with a 17-22-7 record—but his success at the AHL level garnered attention from the Stars. Nelson’s 133-78-17 record in Grand Rapids from 2015 to 2018, including a Calder Cup Championship in 2017, would have been difficult to ignore.
Upon his arrival in Dallas, Nelson was given control of a power play that had underachieved in the previous season. After finishing 19th in the league with a 19.3 percent conversion rate in 2017-18, Nelson elevated the Stars’ man advantage to 11th, scoring on 21 percent of its opportunities. This may not seem like a huge improvement to the naked eye, but there’s a different statistic that shows the importance of Nelson’s influence.
The Stars scored 47 goals on the man advantage in 2017-18 but also surrendered a horrendous 10 shorthanded goals—tied for third-most in the league. In 2018-19, the team tucked away 45 power play goals and managed to sacrifice only two shorthanded goals—tied for second fewest.
They may not have scored more special teams goals this season, but Nelson’s strategy of quick puck movement and getting shots to the net gave the Stars much more momentum, even on the power play, that didn’t result in a goal. Combined with the fact that opposing teams were unable to steal momentum back with shorthanded goals, the new-look man-advantage was putting the Stars in a position to win on a nightly basis.
The final addition to the Stars’ staff last summer turned out to be the one with the most history in professional hockey. Bowness brought with him more than 30 years of coaching experience when he joined the Stars, but his most successful years were the ones leading up to his move to Dallas. In the eight seasons prior to joining the Stars, Bowness made it to the Conference Finals or deeper four times as an associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning. But it’s what he’s done with the Stars’ defense and penalty kill that proves what he’s capable of.
Two seasons ago, the Stars were last in the league with a 73.9 percent penalty kill. They were able to improve that number to 80.8 percent in 2017-18, good for 14th, but Bowness was able to improve it even more to a formidable 82.8 percent, which ranked fifth in the league in 2018-19. Additionally, the 54 goals surrendered while shorthanded in 2017-18 was reduced to 41 this season.
Most of this success can be attributed to the stellar play of goaltenders Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (shout out to goaltending coach Jeff Reese), but the system in front of them on and off the penalty kill was one that made their jobs easier. Bowness preached a system of hard pressure at certain key points on the ice, which took time and space away from opposing skill players without wearing out the Stars’ defensemen. But where Bowness’ work shined brightest was in the postseason.
The Stars hold the mantle for the best penalty kill in the playoffs this season and are likely to keep it. In 37 shorthanded occasions, Dallas only surrendered two power-play goals while also chipping in a shorthanded tally. Their 94.6 penalty kill percentage is the highest of any playoff team with a minimum of 10 games played since the 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings, and the highest ever if that minimum is bumped to 13 games.
What Bowness accomplished in his first season in Dallas is nothing short of remarkable, and his impact resonates throughout the Stars’ dressing room.
Stu Barnes may not have had as specific a role as Nelson or Bowness, but his importance cannot be understated. While Montgomery, Nelson and Bowness took care of the systems, Barnes served as a buffer between the players and coaches. This proved to be particularly valuable for young skaters such as Jason Dickinson, who had this to say in an interview with Mike Heika appearing on NHL.com:
He has so much to offer us from his experience, and I try to take advantage of all of that. Personally, I’ve used Barnesy a lot. He’s like the big brother for me, so I can talk to him about everything, really. We go down and break down film and I bounce stuff him and [Vernon Fiddler] a lot and then pick their brains and get a different perspective. He’s so easy to talk to and sees all sides of the game from both playing and coaching, and it’s great to be able to get that perspective from him,(from ‘Barnes using own experience to help Stars through pressure of playoffs’ – NHL.com – Mike Heika – 04/30/2019).
This isn’t the kind of position that numbers can be associated with, but having a presence like Barnes’ around the rink every day makes the grind of a long season a little easier. He is still in the early stages of his career behind the bench, but it seems only a matter of time before he becomes a more prominent name in coaching.
The only problem with assembling such a successful cast is that other teams will eventually take notice, and that appears to be the case with the Anaheim Ducks interviewing both Nelson and Bowness for their head coaching vacancy.
There are other candidates in the mix as well, so this may be moot, but it’s never too early to plan for what the Dallas bench will look like next season if one of the two is snatched up. If Nelson is the one to leave, there is a simple solution available. Given Stu Barnes’ history as a great special teams player and the trust he’s built with the team, moving him into Nelson’s role makes obvious sense. Promoting Vernon Fiddler into Stu Barnes’ current position would also be seamless since he already serves the team in a supporting role.
However, if Bowness is removed, there is an outside name that could be brought in to fill that opening. Former Lightning and Ottawa Senators head coach, Guy Boucher has become available after being fired by the latter in March. His coaching style was based on communication with the players and a strong defensive structure—sounds quite a bit like Montgomery. According to Bob McKenzie, though, it appears John Stevens is the likely party to join the Stars staff.
Only time will tell if changes are coming to the Stars’ bench next season, but, regardless, the team appears to be in good hands moving forward.