Last summer, the Dallas Stars hired Jim Montgomery to be head coach. Montgomery had been the head coach at the University of Denver, winning a national championship and sporting a resume of winning at all levels he had coached in his second career after retiring from playing hockey professionally.
It was a risky hire for several reasons.
There were big expectations heading into the season for the Stars. They had a core locked up and ready to be competitive now. Anything less than a playoff appearance would be a failed season. There was also the fact that the Stars were on their third coach in three seasons. A failed season would likely spell the end of the newest coach and the general manager that hired him.
In his first season, Montgomery oversaw injuries and inconsistency at the beginning of the season. He adjusted the team’s approach at the All-Star break and finished the year as one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference after that league break. His team finished with a 43-32-7 record and 93 points, securing a first Wild Card spot for the playoffs.
Just making the playoffs would be considered a success for a team that appeared to be firmly heading for another near-miss in the standings as of Christmas.
But he did more than just make the playoffs. The Montgomery-coached Stars won their first round versus the Nashville Predators, 4-2. They then took the St. Louis Blues to seven games and two overtimes before being eliminated from the postseason. A few inches here and a finished chance there, and it very easily could have been the Stars moving on to the Western Conference final instead of the Blues.
Montgomery’s seven postseason wins is one of the most successful first seasons among head coaches to go from the NCAA ranks to the NHL. Granted, there haven’t been many of them to compare to, as the jump from NCAA to NHL is fairly rare. There have been five total coaches to make that kind of jump.
One such came in at the same time as Montgomery. David Quinn also entered the NHL ranks this season as head coach of the New York Rangers. The Rangers are in a much different part of the development cycle when compared to the Dallas Stars. The Blueshirts are in the midst of a rebuild whereas Dallas was always meant to be a contender this season given the core they had signed and the pieces they had in place. After coming over from Boston University, Quinn coached the Rangers to a 32-36-14 record, good for 78 points in the standings and a 7th place finish in the Metropolitan Division.
Considered the most successful NCAA-to-NHL coach in league history, Bob Johnson left the University of Wisconsin to take over as the head coach of the Calgary Flames in 1982. His first season saw the team earn 78 points (32-34-0-14 record in an era prior to the introduction of the shootout) and finish second in the Smythe Division. After winning their first playoff series versus the Vancouver Canucks with three wins, the Johnson-coached Flames lost the second series 4-1 at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers.
In total, Johnson won four postseason games in his first season as a NHL head coach. Johnson went on to coach the Flames for five seasons, appearing in the postseason every year and making an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final once (a loss to the Montreal Canadiens).
After leaving the Flames, Johnson served as president of USA Hockey for four years, before taking over as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning a Stanley Cup. Sadly, it was his only season behind the bench of the Penguins as he suffered a brain aneurysm before being diagnosed with brain cancer. He passed away just three months later.
On the other side of the spectrum, the least successful of the NCAA-to-NHL coaches is likely Ned Harkness by a longshot.
In the summer of 1970, Ned Harkness was hired by the Detroit Red Wings from Cornell University. His first (and only) season as a head coach in the NHL ended just 38 games into the season. He was fired after the team got off to a 12-22-4 record. That didn’t end his NHL career, however. He was actually promoted to general manager of the same Red Wings franchise that fired him as coach, a position he maintained for three seasons before he returned to the college coaching ranks and ending his run in the NHL altogether. This era is commonly referred to as the “Darkness of Harkness” in Red Wings lore.
Somewhere in the middle resides Dave Hakstol.
Head coach at the University of North Dakota prior to moving to the NHL, Hakstol was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the 2015-2016 season. In his first season behind the bench, he oversaw a 96-point campaign (41-27-14 record), good for the second Wild Card in the Easter Conference for the playoffs. His team exited the first round at the hands of the President’s Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals. They won two postseason games in the series loss.
After three full seasons in which the Flyers had first round exits twice and did not qualify for the playoffs once, Hakstol was fired 31 games into the 2018-2019 season. Alain Vigneault will be the new bench boss for the Flyers this coming season. No word as of now where Hakstol ends up for next season, but it is possible his NHL career is not over. He could be picked up on a NHL coaching staff as an assistant to gain more NHL coaching experience before diving back into the head coaching pool, or he could take a role as an AHL head coach to get more experience in the professional hockey ranks.
The totality of the careers of Montgomery and Quinn as the newest NCAA-to-NHL coaches are yet to be known. But Stars fans have to believe that the first season under Jim Montgomery in Dallas is a sign of good things to come. After all, hope springs eternal after a decent run in the playoffs, and with many of the same pieces returning next season and a year of experience for the rookie head coach, the future seems bright in Stars land.