Identity is crucial in the NHL, whether it be for an individual or his team. In the case of Tyler Seguin and the Dallas Stars, that identity has shifted over the years, and now both the franchise and the star center have evolved in a way they hope will lead to the promised land. This is a story of what happens when you get total buy-in from your most talented player.
No team came closer to knocking off the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 playoffs than the Stars. It took a double-overtime goal by Patrick Maroon in Game 7 of the second round for the Blues to push past Dallas, and the Stars have not forgotten. And to be frank, nor should they: Dallas has the core talent to win the Stanley Cup, but like so many teams before them, they’ve been going through trials that will either forge them into steel, or burn them to a crisp.
“Sacrifice” is the name of the game in the NHL, and Dallas has the perfect frontman for that in Seguin, who has gone from an 80-point scorer to a 60-point man – but become a better player in the process.
In the past, with Seguin and partner-in-crime Jamie Benn leading the way, the Stars lineup had no problem putting up offense. But those teams weren’t keeping goals out of their own net either, and success was fleeting. In 2018, GM Jim Nill brought in coach Jim Montgomery to try something new and, along with assistant coach Rick Bowness, the Stars went to work.
“Four or five years ago they were scoring at will but they weren’t winning, they were missing playoffs and they weren’t going anywhere,” Bowness said. “When Jim and I came in last year, we had to change the style of play to make us a more competitive team in the playoffs, and that was an adjustment for all the players who had been here for a long time, certainly for Tyler and Jamie as offensive players.”
It would have been easy for Seguin to second-guess that thought process. After all, he has a Cup ring from his rookie season with the Boston Bruins, not to mention gobs of cash. But Seguin, who left Boston under a cloud that cast him as immature and wild, found his footing and began to understand what it truly means to be a professional. And he has learned that if he ever wanted to lead Dallas to a Cup, the change would start with him.
“For so many years I focused on goals and points, and I judged my game a lot on that,” Seguin said. “Honestly, I’d go into a game where, maybe I had an assist and six shots on net, and that was a good game to me. The mental side now, understanding more what it takes to win, a good game to me is looking at my faceoff percentage, how many goals against I was on for, how many goals for I was on for, what our power play is looking like, different things I wasn’t looking at before that now I understand.”
When Seguin entered the NHL with the Bruins in 2010-11, he had some great two-way players to look up to, but the message just didn’t click – and when you win a championship in your first NHL campaign, that’s understandable. So his summer goals were all offensively driven. Now, he’s concentrating on details (his 58.2 faceoff winning percentage this year was a career best and among the league’s leaders) and the long view: not only staying healthy for an 82-game schedule, but putting in the work to be effective the whole way through.
“Before I wouldn’t work out as much after a Saturday night game or a weekend game, not realizing that the extra muscle would help me 60 games later,” he said. “But that’s something I do more now, and I talk to the young guys about that.”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Seguin is only 28 because he’s been in the NHL for a decade. He’s still young, but he’s also a veteran. He wears an alternate captain’s ‘A’ on his Victory Green sweater and is relishing the chance to pass on his wisdom to a team that has blended established vets with young talents such as Miro Heiskanen, Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz. Seguin realizes his impact is not restricted to his on-ice exploits.
“It goes with leadership as well,” he said. “Understanding the room and when sometimes a coach doesn’t need to say something but you go and have a private conversation with a player. Making sure no matter what you ask teammates to do, you do it first. If you ask them to do five reps, you do the five reps first. Understanding that mentality is where my growth has been.”
In terms of mental toughness, the Stars have needed a lot of it in 2019-20. Dallas won just one of its first nine games, and, for the coaches, it was apparent something was off in training camp.
“It just didn’t seem like we were dialed in,” Bowness said. “Coaches know when a team is dialed in or not. We had the good run the year before, going to double overtime against St. Louis in the second round, and you know the intensity that comes with that feeling. We just didn’t feel we were near that level when we started the season.”
Dallas recovered in November, only to be walloped by a shocker development in December: Montgomery was fired, and the reason was completely unknown to even the most plugged-in hockey insiders. It was later revealed that Montgomery was struggling with alcoholism, and he has since put himself on the road to recovery, while Bowness stepped in as interim head coach.
“Everyone was shocked,” said right winger Joe Pavelski. “We didn’t find out until we got to the rink for the morning skate against New Jersey. It’s a situation you get thrown into, and you have to handle it professionally. He was a good coach, and he prepared us well. It was on us to take that and run with it.”
Usually when a coach is fired mid-season, it’s performance-based. That was not the case with the Stars, so the silver lining to the news was that Dallas didn’t need to make any system changes. It was still heavy news for the squad, but their reaction was crucial.
“That’s where we started to see the maturity of the team,” Nill said. “I addressed the team that morning, and they said, ‘We trust management and ownership, and it’s up to us as a team and individuals to play now. That’s where the Seguins, Benns, Pavelskis and (Corey) Perrys stepped up. That’s when they really took over the team. They did a great job leading.”
The end result was a defensive machine that grinded teams out with the knowledge that even a breakdown could be covered by star netminder Ben Bishop – or his stingy backup, Anton Khudobin. In a few short seasons, Dallas had completely flipped its style, and Seguin is emblematic of the shift.
“If you don’t have the puck, you need five guys working to get it back,” Bowness said. “Can’t be three guys or four guys, and Tyler certainly bought into that. Now we’re walking that fine line because we’re a top defensive team, and now we need to open it up a bit offensively to be more of a threat.”
Seguin admits he would have liked to produce more this season, but the training camp before the post-season was a great chance for a refresh. In the meantime, his new enthusiasm for defense has the charismatic center looking at enemy lineups in an entirely different way these days.
“It starts with knowing who you’re going against,” he said. “If you’re playing Connor McDavid, you have to stay above him all night. If it’s Ryan O’Reilly, you have to be more hard-nosed, greasy and competitive. Early on in my career, you’re looking at who the third-line center is, ‘Who am I getting matched up against so I can produce?’ Now it’s more that I want to be against the No. 1 player on the team because I want to shut him down. You check your ego at the door a little bit, but after time you get used to it and almost relish it. I’ve had so many seasons where I put up more than 60 to 70 points, and it feels good for a minute, but when you’re in April and you’re not playing playoff hockey, it doesn’t feel good at all. Feeling that over and over again makes you change your ways.”
Now it’s time to put up or shut up. Dallas earned a spot in the Western Conference’s top four, thus avoiding the qualifying round before hooking up with Calgary for its first elimination test. Yes, the Stars came close to dethroning the eventual champs in last year’s tournament, but in the end they didn’t.
“There’s only so many positives you can take from losing,” Seguin said. “Losing sucks. Did it feel different when St. Louis won it all? Every time you don’t win the Cup it sucks, but yeah, seeing the team that beat you win it, knowing how close you were to them, that was a different animal, and that definitely sucked. Then you start speculating about every little play that happened. You had what it took to win, but you didn’t do it. That drove the summer, to get back to that point.”
As Nill points out, winning takes sacrifice and you have to go through hard times before you win. The Blues were at it for nearly a decade before breaking through, after all. Now Dallas has experienced playoff heartbreak, then followed it up with a rollercoaster season that saw them riding a high when the pandemic hit. Seguin can’t wait to finish what they started, and his headspace is exactly where it needs to be to lead a winning team.
“The biggest thing with young players, and everyone goes through it, is you get to a point where it’s all about you and what you can do,” Nill said. “But as you mature, it all becomes about winning. You’re going to make all the money in the world, you can win all the awards, but there’s one award you want to win, and that’s the Stanley Cup. And that’s where Tyler and a lot of our players are starting to get to. When you get to that point in your career, that’s when you start to win all the time. The Boston Bruins are a great example, and I saw it in Detroit (where Nill was an assistant GM for years). These guys are wired, they’re competitive, and in the end they want to be known as winners. Tyler is getting to that point.”
Pavelski, who played his entire NHL career in San Jose before decamping to Dallas via free agency last summer, is certainly there, too.
“It’s at a point where some of us want to win for the first time and others want to win again,” Pavelski said. “You see guys buy in to the process and there are some nights when we get hot, we’re as dangerous as anyone.”
And that comes from the top down, starting with Seguin.