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Systems Update: Predicting the Dallas Stars’ Strategy and Tactics Under Jim Montgomery

Jim Montgomery looks like he’ll blend the old school with the new school for the 2018-2019 season. Unfortunately we have to wait and see whether that’s good or bad, but it looks good.

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2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“Styles make fights.” That’s the old cliché in boxing. It’s a nice little heuristic for the rock-paper-scissors-like interaction between fighters, and how certain styles are naturally more effective against certain opponents before the first punch is even thrown.

Hockey has a similar corollary when it comes to systems. Systems make fights. Granted, hockey is not as violent. Usually. But you get the point. I’ve said a lot of disagreeable things about Ken Hitchcock, but I never said he was a bad coach (far from it). My argument — in so many words — is that he was using a roster of scissors as if it were a rock.

I don’t think it takes a hockey expert to identify that systems are informed by philosophies, and with any philosophy comes certain biases. Where do those biases come from? Good question.

I won’t pretend to know. I think culture can play a factor. North American hockey as we know it was partially built on the pro-goon sentiments of Don Cherry, the iron-sharpens-iron attitude (even when it means having your players physically chase you from the locker room) of Mike Keenan, the Broad Street Bullies, or the penny loafer pugilism of the Boston Bruins. Words like “grit” and “compete” become variables in what it takes to be an efficient hockey player, and so traits that overlap with these elements take natural priority. But that’s North America.

Sweden’s national team coach, Rickard Gronborg, has a different view, a view established when Sweden decided they needed to produce more NHL defensemen in 2002. To Gronborg, you can’t dump and chase. Your zone coverage can’t be predictable. And when you have the puck, you can’t lack imagination — his words, not mine.

That brings us to Jim Montgomery, who seems to blend the different philosophies together, brazenly stealing from other hockey cultures.

Offensive Zone Tactics

I previewed Hitchcock’s systems last year. Like Hitchcock, Montgomery favors the 2-1-2 forecheck. It’s not a modern invention so much as an adaptation of a previous tactic. The 2-1-2 evolved as a way to kill the classic D-to-D pass, speeding the game up to force turnovers and demanding quick decisions from opposing defensemen (perhaps explaining why stay-at-home types are less popular).

There’s a lot of fantastic film room content in Sean Shapiro’s breakdown at The Athletic. From the limited tape I’ve sifted through in my viewing, Montgomery’s version of the forecheck is basically the same. Just as it is for most teams, two forwards converge on the defensemen, often to overload one side of the ice. The high forward (or F3) hovers around the slot in order to intercept a turnover, or support his own defensemen if the opponent maintains possession.

In Hitchcock’s system, his teams stacked an aggressive 2-1-2 but the defensemen were rovers rather than attack dogs.

Defensemen in Hithcock’s system stay fairly high, which is good for minimizing the counterrush. To Hitchcock’s credit, the end result was effective; Dallas was fourth in the NHL last season in shot attempts against per hour.

Part of what makes the 2-1-2 effective is that it’s aggressive by nature, and we saw what that looked like at its most carnivorous under Lindy Ruff. Just watch the first few shifts during their Minnesota series in 2016.

In this sequence, Kris Russell actually takes over for F3, letting Dallas maintain possession. Allowing blueliners to pinch keeps opposing defensemen from aimlessly throwing the puck along the boards. It wasn’t always obvious. Sometimes the threat was “subtle”, like below.

It’s a very hard to see, but John Klingberg is just a few feet behind Vernon Fiddler, ready to cut off the boards. To Ruff’s credit, the end result was effective; Dallas was second in the NHL that season in shot attempts for per hour.

So where does Montgomery figure into this systems continuum?

Watching Denver’s game against Minnesota Duluth in the 2017 Championship, Montgomery looks like he favors Hitchcock’s version of the 2-1-2. The defenseman sometimes pinch, but pinching is not their autopilot the way it felt like under Ruff’s bar room brawling style. When they do, it looks less like a horde of orcs, and more like an exchange, which is something Shapiro did a great job of breaking down when looking at Montgomery’s work with Will Butcher. Julius Honka’s first NHL point was identical to what Jim Montgomery allows defensemen to do.

He wants the blue line to create confusion and mismatches.

These are all — I think — good indicators. And there’s no better indicator than looking at the genesis of offense — zone entries. There are three traditional ways to enter the zone. You can regroup, which is good for teams that can cycle and pass. You can dump and chase, which is good for more defensive teams, or teams that favor quantity of shots over quality. Or you can transition rush, which is good for quick teams, or teams that want to activate their defensemen.

Ruff was all-in on transition rushes, with an extra dash of regrouping. Hitchcock was all-in on dump and chase, with an extra dash of dump and chase. Montgomery appears to perfectly blend regrouping and transition tactics to enter the zone. To me that speaks to his willingness let players play to their natural instincts rather than manage artificial decrees. As he said at the press conference, “everyone should look the same when we don’t have the puck. When we do have the puck everyone should play to their strengths.”

Defensive Zone Tactics

Offense isn’t created in a vacuum. In the modern NHL, you have to use all three zones to produce, not just one. If you’re expecting primary offense to come from offensive zone face-offs and dump and chase — the former has a net effect of .02 goals in terms of differential, and the latter is simply not that efficient — then you’re probably not a good team. Again, offense and all three zones. A clean breakout is more likely to lead to a clean entry, which means carrying the puck, and carrying the puck means more options. Which then means fun for the whole family, i.e. more goals.

The 2017-2018 squad was mired in ugly exits. Not only did they lead the league in icings, but they were second to last at exiting the zone with possession of the puck.

Montgomery isn’t interested in this style of play. Whether in his stated philosophy, or watching tape from his Denver teams, he wants the blue line to focus more on funneling the puck through the middle rather than rimming it up the boards. There are times, as Ruff did with Dallas, when Denver’s forwards would leave the zone early to pressure the opposing blue line. This has the dual effect of giving Dallas the option of the stretch pass — a good play with the right personnel. All in all, there’s a strong emphasis on dynamic managing as a five-man unit under Montgomery’s teams.

In theory, this bodes well for the 2018-2019 Dallas Stars. Their blue line, as is, will be fundamentally different, but different in a way Montgomery appears eager to take advantage of.

Neutral Zone Tactics

In the 2015-2016 season, Dallas was one of the premiere teams in terms of their neutral zone attack. To me, the neutral zone is like a fingerprint; it identifies the profile of how teams successfully break out, or successfully defend against breakouts. Ideally, teams want to attack space. This is how Dallas used to look.

Ryan Stimson via

Not every neutral zone looked this pretty, but it’s something Montgomery’s teams do well. When opponents don’t give them ideal options, Montgomery’s teams tend to reset. His resets look a lot like what Ryan Stimson found in his fantastic analysis of the Red Army’s 1981 team that walloped Team Canada. The Red Army used their passing to create faux 2-on-1’s, paying strict attention to off-the-puck routines — backpedaling after entering the zone, lateral movement, etc. — to weigh more options while giving the defense less time to process the play. The end result is universal; the more passes prior to a shot, the more likely that shot turns into a goal.

You also see some of this in Montgomery’s face-off approach, where each player — even the defensemen — are asked to swarm the puck for control. This is important because the neutral zone itself is, well... important. A controlled entry leads to more than twice as many unblocked shots.

Special Teams

I’ll keep this one short. I’ve talked a lot about special teams in the past, whether the penalty kill under Lindy Ruff, or the power play under the same coach. If there’s a common theme when it comes to predicting what Dallas may look like tactically under their new head coach, it’s that the devil is in the details. Jim Montgomery does some things different on the PK (like using a traditional box approach with an unconventional execution), and his power play in Denver had an old school vibe with its focus on the point men, but as with most things, Montgomery’s systems look very nuanced. For more, Sean Shapiro has you covered here.

Stray Observations

This is all theory-crafting in a hockey-less season. The more cynical-minded are probably worrying that Jim Montgomery will transform into Pierre McGuire’s six months in Hartford, right down to players calling his firing “the best thing that could have happened.”

That’d be hard to do, for one, and second, I think Dallas’ previous two coaches had problems with flexibility (something Montgomery actively promotes).

Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock seemed to represent different extremes. Ruff wanted the imbalance of spamming pressure. But despite Dallas’ gaudy offense, the 2015-2016 Stars squad was 20th in shot attempts against per hour. Hitchcock wanted the balance of preventing pressure. But despite Dallas’ stingy defense, the 2017-2018 Stars squad was 17th in shot attempts for per hour.

Montgomery doesn’t appear to be mired by system conventions. Another interesting factoid is Montgomery’s road record with the University of Denver, which was very good. Analytically, understanding quality of competition is nebulous at best. But as I discussed in my analysis of Dallas’ road record under Ken Hitchcock, you can’t understate the potential impact. Road games are where I think roster decisions have a tangible effect on the outcome. In tennis, even one point per thousand counts for a lot. I have to think there’s a similar effect going on when it comes to managing personnel for away games, so it’s something to watch out for.

I suspect that Jim Montgomery believes that it’s less important for systems (strict positioning) to steer the wheel than structure (dynamic managing). Under Hithcock and Ruff, this wasn’t the case. I can’t predict the future for you, but I can predict (I think) the philosophy. Jim Montgomery’s philosophy doesn’t just look progressive. It looks efficient. Unfortunately for now, all we can do is hope.

All stats were taken via Natural Stat Trick.