Trust the Process
Jim Montgomery’s process brought him success at Denver and he brought it with him to Big D. For many people the process seems like a set of goals, but when you look closer, it’s a live blueprint on how to win hockey games at any level.
Winning a hockey game in the National Hockey League appears to be a very hard thing to do.
It makes sense that it should be hard when you are trying to defeat a team comprised of the some of the best hockey players on the planet. The NHL season is a beast, where any team can beat any other team on any night. In essence this isn’t the NBA (oh yeah, I went there.)
However, what if a team had a workable blueprint that they could scheme off of every night? A simple, detailed checklist, that if the majority of boxes are checked at the final horn, the club wins the contest.
There does exist such a blueprint, a process if you will, invented and proven by a National Championship hockey coach. This blueprint will not only lead to success in the National Hockey League, but will lead to a win at all levels of hockey. It is not a set of goals, but a simplification and visual representation of the steps necessary to succeed in a hockey game.
Without further delay, enter in the man and a breakdown of the blueprint that will lead the Dallas Stars to a perfect 82-0-0* record in the 2018-19 season, Jim Montgomery and his process.
(*Note: The Stars will not go 82-0-0, but we can dream because... #TrustTheProcess).
Win 56% of Faceoffs:
The first box in the process is pretty straight forward and hearkens back to the fundamental way that Jim Montgomery expects his Dallas Stars to play: with the puck. Winning a face-off in any area of the ice is a significant advantage for any team, being that the Stars have the puck and their opponent does not. It also gives the Stars the ability to dictate the pace of play in any area in which they have won the draw, letting their offense flow and keeping the opposition in a defensive posture.
The 56% of the face-offs is also a significant aspect of the process. Having the puck 50% of the time isn’t exactly an advantage either way; it is what it looks like: a draw. Having the puck 56% of the time represents an advantage (way to state the obvious). However, the obvious is usually the most important. It isn’t a dominate number, indicating that Montgomery is measured in his goals, but that he expects his team to accomplish this task on most nights. Look at the 56% of face-offs like time of possession in football: if the Stars have the puck 56% of the time, the other team only has the puck 44% of the time. There is also a poignant truism in hockey: the team without the puck makes mistakes without the puck.
Zero Undisciplined Penalties:
As a coach, there is nothing more irritating and deflating than a bad, undisciplined penalty. It puts the team in a spot that it otherwise wouldn’t be in, and gives the opponent a chance to steal momentum in the game and possess the puck in the offensive zone for an extended period of time. The second box in the process is stay out of the box.
I will admit that the word “undisciplined” is a key in this instance. It shows that Montgomery understands that there is such a thing as a good penalty. A good penalty could be a hold to break up an obvious scoring chance (a la Marc Methot’s interference penalty on Saturday versus the Winnipeg Jets) or a penalty generated by battling for the puck. Those happen and it’s correctable. Undisciplined fouls are a different story - a call for high sticking, a lazy hold on a stick or jersey, or yapping at the refs and getting a misconduct - those are back breakers. Bad penalties are the difference between a win or a loss in a game against a good team and actions breed habits. If the Stars were to commit bad penalties against a team like Arizona, they could in theory survive them and go on and win a game. However, commit the same penalties against the Predators, Capitals, etc. the game can be lost in a heartbeat.
Again actions breed habits. By placing this box in the process, Montgomery is holding his team accountable by harping on making the right decisions (actions) and thereby resulting in the right habits. Check that box and the Stars have a chance at any time.
Three or Less Odd Man Rushes:
This box might be the most important, outside of the special teams box. Odd man rushes are the result of breakdowns within the entire structure of the five man unit; they are momentum-sucking plays.
Because this process essentially plays off of the obvious goals required to win a game, limiting odd man opportunities is a key tenet of hockey. First, it keeps the goalie from encountering a stressful situation and prevents the momentum from a goal against because of a system breakdown. Second, the unsuccessful odd man rush breeds chaos after the attempt is thwarted, and in some ways that is more dangerous. Extended zone time after an odd man rush can lead to goals or penalties that lead to goals, taking a bad situation to worse quickly. Lastly, odd man opportunities expose holes in the defense and can create dysfunction within the system, placing stress (thinking) on the players leading and often causing them to make more mistakes.
By limiting the amount of odd man chances against to three or less, it demonstrates that Montgomery is practical in thinking. Odd man chances are going to happen over the course of a game, whether from a bad change, a missed assignment, or the like. Three or less is manageable - it doesn’t shake confidence and can lead to momentum if the Stars goaltender makes a big save. More than three and you’re testing fate. One of those pucks is going to end up in the Stars net or the club will take a penalty. Three or less also demonstrates that the club is going to be accountable in all zones, bringing into focus Montgomery’s five-man unit backcheck, a backcheck that can lead to odd man rushes that favors the Stars. Check this box and the game becomes easier for everyone on the ice (minus the Stars’ opponent).
Win Net Front Battle:
The area from the hashmarks to the blue paint, encompassing the slot area on the ice, is what is typically referred to as a “high danger” area. Good players find ways into the slot - it’s where the money is made and where the majority of goals are scored at all levels of hockey. Coaches are consistently harping on the importance of owning the slot and going back home in the defensive zone. More importantly, defensemen and centers of all ages are trained to be responsible for the net front. Always protect the slot.
This check mark is important and simple.
In essence, Montgomery is really preaching zone responsibility and good positioning in the defensive end of the ice. Without either of these two tenets of defensive hockey, the opposition would be able to exploit the Stars on the edges of the hashmarks to funnel offense into the middle of the ice. By gaining a strategic advantage with positioning and responsibility to defensive assignments, the Stars will take the middle away from the opposition. The Stars can live with the puck on the perimeter of the ice - shots from there are marginal threats (low percentage plays).
By taking the middle of the ice away, the Stars are limiting the amount of high danger chances in the game and are clearing bodies from the slot. This is THE key element of good defensive zone hockey, and Montgomery is simply re-enforcing it game in and game out. Again, check this box and the Stars will win a lot of games.
Win Special Teams:
This box in the Montgomery process comes last but it might be one of the most important boxes to check in the hockey game.
Special teams will decide the outcomes of games either directly or indirectly. Go 0-for-5 on the powerplay and the other club goes 1-for-5 and there is a good chance that the Stars lose that game. Give up two shorthanded goals and there is a good chance the Stars lose that game. Go 3-for-5 on the powerplay and kill off all of the penalties against, the Stars probably win that game with a comfortable margin (see Saturday’s 5-1 win over Winnipeg as Example A). Games swing on a big goal with the advantage or a big kill and it is refreshing that Montgomery understands this to the point where it stares the players in the face every day.
This box also goes hand in hand with the other boxes; win the faceoff on the man advantage and the Stars can carry out their in-zone structure, stay out of the box (and off the penalty kill), eliminate odd man rushes and the Stars are not running around in their own end undisciplined, and in winning the net front the Stars are in the correct defensive posture not chasing the game. The process really builds to the last box because, if all boxes ahead of it are checked, the Stars can usually check the last box fairly easily.
At the end of the day the process needs buy-in from the players and through the first two games of the season, it appears the Stars have done just that. This blueprint, this process, is an approach that if the majority of the boxes are checked, the Stars can bank two more points at the end of the night more often than not.
The genius of the process that Montgomery has created is that it doesn’t take an NHL or a college coach to implement it successfully. In reality, Montgomery is relying upon the fundamentals, the elementary aspects of the game that even professional hockey players have to have to win a game. What the Stars bench boss has posted in the locker room in Frisco is the same lessons being instilled in young athletes on rinks across the globe.
The process is all in the fundies.