As the NHL season pause continues, planning for the future has become quite complicated. Right now, there’s no telling when (or even if) the regular season will resume, or whether some semblance of a playoff occurs. That uncertainty has a trickle down effect on a number of offseason activities teams have, including draft preparation, negotiations of new contracts for restricted free agents, understanding where the salary cap for next season will be set, free agency, and re-shaping of rosters based on where the team is — and where it looks like its headed.
While every offseason is important for each team, this one was always going to be pivotal for the Dallas Stars. The uncertainty of how the season does — or doesn’t — resume will have a large impact on the approach the Stars will take in the offseason.
One area in which this uncertainty could have a major impact is the decision on a head coach for next season. Is it fair to judge interim head coach Rick Bowness on the games he was able to coach? How do you determine what he could have done in the playoffs if he’s not given the chance to do so?
Layer in the fact that this could likely be the last head coach hire that general manager Jim Nill has left, it’s one of the largest decisions the team has to make — and its impact will have a ripple effect on the franchise, and whether the team wins a Stanley Cup sooner rather than later. Not many general managers get to hire five coaches (four consciously and one out of necessity earlier this season) without winning it all at least once.
Honestly, the direction of the next coach hiring goes should be predicated on what kind of hockey the team wants to play.
When Jim Nill originally came to Dallas, he talked a lot about a puck-possession style of play. Lindy Ruff had the team play a very exciting brand of hockey. Sometimes, that excitement was to the detriment of the team. Ken Hitchcock had a boring, smothering style that for a while looked like it would succeed before the team’s epic collapse down the stretch — and his resulting ouster as head coach.
Jim Montgomery seemed to align with Nill’s initial desired style of play, but it was for long stretches as boring and defense-oriented as Hitchcock’s system had been. Though, Montgomery was able to tweak his way of doing things and find more of a balance between offense and defense after the All-Star break in his first season, leading to more exciting hockey for the players and their fans.
Although Bowness said he was going to keep things going along the same lines as Montgomery, he wasn’t really able to make those quick-turn adjustments like Montgomery had. He had stretches of struggles punctuated by long breaks that rested and rejuvenated the players to perform better.
Nill has already shown he is forward-thinking enough to think outside of the box by hiring Montgomery straight out of the college ranks. I think he could look outside the traditional carousel of re-treads the NHL is known for if he decides to hire a different coach. There’s one that feels like a perfect fit to find that balance between the exciting, high-speed team fans loved years ago with the defense-oriented squad they’ve been watching for a few years now. One that could maximize the remainder of the primes of the Stars core players before the window closes to win it all with this main group.
Currently, Rickard Grönborg is the head coach of the ZSC Lions in the top Swiss hockey league (NLA). He’s also coached the Swedish men’s national team at various levels over the past decade, leading to seven World Championship medals (three golds), six World Junior medals (one gold), and an Olympic silver medal in 2014. John Klingberg, one of Dallas’ top mobile defensemen, has been a member of several of those teams.
Grönborg has been a name bandied about the last couple of offseasons as teams make coaching changes. The problem is that no NHL general manager has been willing to take a chance on a coach without NHL experience. However, Grönborg is considered the best coach not currently in the best league in the world.
But what would make him a great fit in Dallas?
For me, it’s this quote he had when TSN did a profile on the young coach.
“There’s so many X’s and O’s out there—I think most coaches coaching at that level, they know their X’s and O’s—but how do you get the players to grow in your environment?” he said. “Because that’s the biggest key for me. How do you communicate with those players? How did you get them to excel and become better and buy into the system? That’s what I’m intrigued about, is how you develop the players.”
For a team that has struggled to develop players, that is a refreshing mindset. It seems like Grônborg would have the agility to look at the pieces of the Stars and develop a system to get the most out of them, instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
At some point, the lack of scoring that has become systemic through the roster isn’t wholly at the feet of the players, and is a symptom of the systems implemented instead. Maybe it’s time to recognize that and make a move to change it. Starting with the next coaching decision, we’ll know which way the Stars management sees the franchise heading towards.