Matt Pryor The Hockey Writers
Welcome Back, Hitchcock
The Dallas Stars turned to the past in order to move forward, introducing Ken Hitchcock as head coach at a Thursday morning press conference.
Hitch: “This is like coming home.” pic.twitter.com/xmkMsgOc9S
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) April 13, 2017
“Hitch” broke into the NHL head-coaching ranks with the Stars midway through the 1995-96 season. Despite leading the club to the only Stanley Cup win in franchise history in 1999 and a Stanley Cup Final loss to the New Jersey Devils the following year, the coach was dismissed 50 games into the 2001-02 campaign, his demanding, detail-oriented style having worn thin.
After stops in Philadelphia, Columbus and St. Louis, Hitchcock returns to Dallas 15 years older and wiser. He’s also one win away from tying legendary bench boss Al Arbour as the third-winningest coach in NHL history.
A Kinder, Gentler Hitchcock?
Being older and wiser doesn’t mean Hitchcock has mellowed, however. Asked at Thursday’s presser if his reputation as a demanding coach who “really grind(s) on guys” was a fair assessment, his response was blunt.
“Yeah…and I’m proud of it,” said Hitch, adding that he’ll bring in assistant coaches who will “challenge and keep me in line.”
Those yet-to-be-named assistants will serve as a buffer between Hitchcock and the players, the ‘good cops’ to the head coach’s ‘bad cop.’ Strong, self-assured personalities are a must, as they’ll need to smooth over ruffled feathers in the dressing room and stand up to Hitch.
What are the 2017-18 Stars in for? A glimpse of the future came a few months ago in a post-practice conversation with Adam Cracknell, who played for Hitchcock in St. Louis from 2011 to 2014.
Cracknell was wearing very lightweight shoulder pads (think Reg Dunlop and the boys in Slap Shot). When queried, the journeyman forward explained that the lighter pads were more comfortable and gave him greater freedom of movement.
Asked if he wore them in games, Cracknell laughed and replied, “No way – I’d get killed!” He then volunteered that, while he wore the lightweight pads for Stars practices, game pads were a necessity with the Hitchcock-led Blues, because “…we had some pretty rough practices.”
Transform Tyler, Transform the Team
In addition to “rough” practices, the new coach brings to the table a stated desire to transform Tyler Seguin from goal-scoring phenom into a complete, no.1 center. Among other things, Hitchcock wants Seguin killing penalties and playing against the opposition’s top players.
Seguin professed to be “giddy” at the opportunity, adding, “I know he’s going to be hard on me, but I want to make this work.”
Whether or not he’ll fully buy in and allow the coach to mold him into a Patrice Bergeron-type pivot remains to be seen. If Hitchcock can pull off that feat of wizardry, though, the Stars will instantly become a much tougher, more dangerous team to play against.
Though Hitch didn’t address the issue Thursday, Jason Spezza, who spent much of last season in the unfamiliar position of right wing, will likely move back to center, as well. A transformed Seguin, combined with a reinvigorated Spezza, would give the Stars a one-two punch down the middle they haven’t had since – you guessed it – Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk.
Before training camp opens in September, the Stars will make additional changes. At least one goalie will be added and at least one will depart. One player will be claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. A veteran, top-four, defensive defenseman may join the team via trade or free agency. Valeri Nichushkin could return from Russia. Amid all the possibilities, the only certainty is that next season’s Hitchcock-coached Stars will be markedly better than last season’s version.
A Song for Hitch
Though early fan reviews of Hitch 2: Forecheck Boogaloo have been mixed, those old enough to remember the magical Cup run of ’99 are all singing the same timeless tune:
With apologies to John Sebastian…While the player names have all changed since Hitch hung around, the Stanley Cup dream still remains and the time is now. If anyone can push and/or pull these
Sweathogs Stars to the peak of hockey’s highest mountain, he can. Welcome back, Hitch.
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