The best and worst Flames coaches ever

The Calgary Flames are currently looking for a head coach.

Over their 44 seasons in the National Hockey League, the Flames have had 17 head coaches (including interims). Some were good. Some were bad. All of them lost their job in one way or another. If you want to get technical, two of them fired themselves.

Here’s our ranking of Flames coaches from worst to best.

17. GREG GILBERT

Tenure: 2001-2002

Expectations: Hired to replace Don Hay in mid-season, with the idea that a young whiz kid could succeed where an award-winning veteran junior coach didn’t.

Reality: Feuded with Marc Savard, the team’s most talented non-Jarome Iginla forward at the time, leading to Savard getting traded to Atlanta by general manager Craig Button for a Russian prospect that nobody ever heard of. Oh, and the Flames puttered around near the bottom of the standings despite having such a harmonious environment in which to play.

Exit Strategy: Fired after posting the worst points percentage of any Flames coach in franchise history, including the expansion years in Atlanta.

16. DON HAY

Tenure: 2000-2001

Expectations: Brought in to help Calgary’s ragtag bunch of youngsters mature into a structured powerhouse, having done so in many stops in the Western Hockey League.

Reality: The Flames were just as inconsistent with a systems-heavy coach as they were with his predecessors.

Exit Strategy: Fired after just 68 games (the shortest non-interim tenure in team history), replaced by assistant coach Greg Gilbert.

15. BRIAN SUTTER

Tenure: 1997-2000

Expectations: Brought in to whip Calgary’s youngsters into shape. Yes, just like Don Hay, but before him (and with much more of an established NHL coaching pedigree).

Reality: The Flames were between 5-15 games below .500 in each season during his tenure. The team wasn’t exactly star-studded during his time in Calgary, but the guy was behind the bench for the two worst seasons (points-wise) in franchise history.

Exit Strategy: To nobody’s huge surprise, the Flames didn’t offer Sutter a new contract after his initial deal expired.

14. GUY CHARRON

Tenure: 1992

Charron was promoted on an interim basis by General Manager Doug Risebrough to replace Head Coach Doug Risebrough. He coached for fewer than 20 games and then returned to his assistant coach duties the following season. He was fine.

13. BERNIE (BOOM BOOM) GEOFFRION

Tenure: 1972-1975

Expectations: Help an expansion team not embarrass themselves.

Reality: They made the playoffs once in his three years. They weren’t terrible, but they also weren’t particularly good, and he got the axe in the third season when it appeared that the club was beginning to backslide a bit.

Exit Strategy: Fired 52 games into the 1974-75 season and replaced by Fred Creighton.

12. PIERRE PAGE

Tenure: 1995-1997

Expectations: Taking over from relative NHL coaching newcomer Dave King, the thought was the veteran Page could steady a Flames team battered by a low Canadian dollar and forced to sell off most of its important/good/expensive pieces to stay afloat.

Reality: The guy that hired Page, Doug Risebrough, was fired roughly a month into the season (which was probably a bad sign). The Flames made the playoffs that first season, but were swept by Chicago. The dismantling continued and they were bad the next season, finishing nine games below .500 and beginning a lengthy tumble down the standings.

Exit Strategy: Page was fired after his disastrous second season.

11. DOUG RISEBROUGH

Tenure: 1990-1992

Expectations: Just two seasons removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the Flames were still mostly the same club that climbed the mountain. The thought process was likely that Risebrough, recently retired and a member of the 1986 Cup finalist team and assistant coach of the 1989 Cup-winning team, would have unique insights and be able to get the most out of the group.

Reality: The Risebrough-led Flames managed a second place finish (and first round exit) in his one full season as head coach. Mentor Cliff Fletcher left for Toronto following that season, handing the GM reins to Riser. Double duty proved too much for him, as the Flames sputtered to their first playoff-less season since 1974-75 and the young exec got fleeced in the Doug Gilmour mega-trade.

Exit Strategy: Risebrough gave himself the axe, resigning as head coach with 16 games left in the 1991-92 season.

10. BOB HARTLEY

Tenure: 2012-2016

Expectations: Shepard a transitioning Flames take through the murky rebuild years as they jettison everyone fans had heard of – such as Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester and a retiring Miikka Kiprusoff – and replace them with cheaper, younger and more anonymous players.

Reality: After trading away Iginla and Bouwmeester after his first season, Hartley’s club had two pretty decent seasons. They made the playoffs and won the team’s first round in over a decade, but backslid in the following season as the bounces that they got the previous year all went against them.

Exit Strategy: Hartley was fired following his fourth season behind the bench.

9. BRENT SUTTER

Tenure: 2009-2012

Expectations: Want to be brutally honest? Renowned junior coach Brent Sutter was poached from the New Jersey Devils by his brother, hoping he could be the guy to get his veteran-laden club over the hump. (By this point Darryl, Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan had all failed, and the vultures were beginning to circle.)

Reality: Brent’s tenure was presaged by Darryl’s infamous “This is a difficult team to coach” speech. Three mediocre years later, with a veteran team that never seemed to find a cohesive strategy, Darryl had been relieved of his duties.

Exit Strategy: The Flames didn’t renew Brent’s contract. He didn’t seem to mind.

8. FRED CREIGHTON

Tenure: 1975-79

Expectations: Taking over for Bernie Geoffrion in Atlanta, the hope was Creighton could help the young Flames team continue their progression into respectability.

Reality: That’s basically what happened. The Flames weren’t world-beaters under Creighton, but they made the playoffs in all four full seasons he was at the helm. Granted, they did not win any of those series, but baby steps.

Exit Strategy: Creighton left the Flames following his fourth (full) season and took a job with the Boston Bruins.

7. MIKE KEENAN

Tenure: 2007-2009

Expectations: After the veteran-laden Flames didn’t respond to rookie coach Jim Playfair, GM Darryl Sutter recruited legendary coach Mike Keenan to lead them to championship glory!

Reality: Keenan’s Flames had two good regular season performances punctuated by two first round playoff exits.

Exit Strategy: Keenan was fired following the second first round exit.

6. JIM PLAYFAIR

Tenure: 2006-2007

Expectations: Promoted from within by mentor Darryl Sutter, Playfair was thought to be young enough, energetic enough and familiar with the team enough to actually get them over the hump.

Reality: Playfair seemed to have trouble adjusting to the new role, and the team seemed to have trouble adjusting to him – “He barely played in the NHL and now he’s a head coach, OMG!” – and so the marriage never really clicked. They sputtered in the playoffs.

Exit Strategy: Sutter demoted Playfair to associate coach and brought in Mike Keenan to do the job, in a situation seemingly bound for disaster. To nobody’s surprise, it didn’t really work.

5. AL MacNEIL

Tenure: 1979-1982 (and 2003)

Expectations: MacNeil actually had two tenures. As Atlanta’s last coach, the hope was he would help the young team progress into a consistent playoff team. He also served on an interim basis after Greg Gilbert got the axe in 2002.

Reality: MacNeil guided the Flames for three full seasons, making the playoffs in every year. In his second season, the team relocated to sunny Canada and won two playoff rounds. Granted, a lot of it was Kent Nilsson-fueled, but MacNeil clearly knew how to use him well.

Exit Strategy: MacNeil was promoted to the management team. He was trusted enough to take over behind the bench (on an interim basis) after Gilbert got fired but before Darryl Sutter was available. (He actually did pretty well considering he hadn’t coached in two decades.)

4. DAVE KING

Tenure: 1992-1995

Expectations: Doug Risebrough was a bad fit as coach, but as general manager he brought in respected Canadian national team coach Dave King in to provide structure, guidance and a steady hand.

Reality: King’s teams won two division titles in three seasons and made the playoffs in each of the years he was at the helm. Unfortunately, they had three first round exits and seemed like a team that just found ways to lose.

Exit Strategy: King’s contract wasn’t renewed following his third season.

3. TERRY CRISP

Tenure: 1987-1990

Expectations: Bob Johnson left the team, so the Flames turned to Terry Crisp to finish the job that Johnson started and win a championship.

Reality: Crisp inherited a championship-caliber team. He proved up to the task and led them to a championship. The following season wasn’t quite as good, despite having a very similar (star/talent-laden) team.

Exit Strategy: The Flames and Crisp parted ways following the 1989-90 season’s first round playoff exit.

2. DARRYL SUTTER

Tenure: 2003-2006

Expectations: Sutter was recruited to instil an underfunded, undermanned Flames team with some sense of structure and purpose in an effort to not squander Jarome Iginla’s immense offensive skill.

Reality: Somehow he brought a team very low on star power to within a goal of a Stanley Cup. Then he went mad trying to upgrade the team in juuust the right ways to get back to the big dance.

Exit Strategy: Technically fired himself, as he resigned as head coach following the 2005-06 season to put 100% of his attention to the general manager’s chair.

1. BOB JOHNSON

Tenure: 1982-1987

Expectations: One of the most respected coaches in NCAA history, he was asked to take Cliff Fletcher’s rag-tag group that went to the 1981 Conference Finals and turn them into a bonafide contender.

Reality: Johnson’s team won five playoff series (and played in 10) over five years, primarily en route to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1986.

Exit Strategy: He left the Flames to take a position with USA Hockey.

      • Matty Franchise Jr

        That doesn’t mean he was the best coach in the NHL that year, just that his team had an unsustainable shooting % that had nothing to do with him.

        • OKG

          There was nothing unsustainable about the SH% though.

          It was literally just a team that didn’t take bad shots and played with strong details.

          But keep on the fake analytics-driven narrative despite them being a top SH% team the year right after.

      • TheoForever

        Crappy Sutter’s team was unwatchable, I would put Bob H. ahead of him anytime of day.

        BTW. After Treliving hires his unknown coach are we going to have Button/Gilbert 2.0?

        • Burnward

          Poke my eye out with a stick instead. Those were some ugly years.

          I think BT is extremely intelligent. I think we’ll see a really good team behind the bench next year.

          • TheoForever

            I think BT is no dummy but I’m extremely nervous about our next coaching hire. BT did pick Huska, and it seems the players got worse under his watch.

            • Parallex

              Huska is a good coach. I mean… how many of the recalls looked out of place at the NHL level? Not many.

              Honestly, I don’t subscribe to AHLive so I can’t speak with much direct knowledge of Huska in Stockton… but I saw him coach plenty when he was with Kelowna and he was a good coach there. We heard a bunch of times that the HC of the farm club is directed to coach the same systems as the parent club (which makes sense) so basically Ryan Huska was directed to implement the same system/style that got Hartley turfed.

            • piscera.infada

              I accidentally (yes, accidentally) subscribed to AHLive this year, so I got to watch a lot of the Heat. For me, the biggest thing I think you can blame Huska for vis-a-vis the players is a bit of a lack discipline at times and an awkwardly run power-play.

              I actually felt he got more out of the “Flames system” than the Flames did. By in large though, I agree with you, the sign of AHL player development to me is always going to be how those players look when given NHL time–they pretty much all looked good this year. The youth and inexperience of the AHL squad was extremely noticeable at times this year. That settled down towards the end of the year, and portends well for next year.

            • Stu Cazz

              Again your wrong Christian …the poster makes a good point about Huska. Very concerning when a coach in a developmental league has top prospects that actually don’t develop but rather digress…how else is an AHL coach measured none else that how top prospects progress under his watch!

            • jakethesnail

              Why then do the call-ups look good when they get into a game or two at the NHL level. Huska has a very in-experienced team of Flames prospects, not veteran laden like the previous coach who was more interested in winning than developing players/

            • piscera.infada

              Huska vs. Ward.

              People love to wax poetic about how “Troy G Ward was a phenomenal developmental coach”, but cursory look at player usage and roster make-up, it (at least) seems as though Troy was not as amenable to playing young players in pressure situations as Huska has been. Ward’s rosters were usually veteran laden squads with names like Kolanos, Billens, Blair Jones, Sylvester, Laing. These were also the players that drove the power play and played the most games.

              In stark contrast, Huska’s teams (especially this year’s team) have been made up of players with 3 or less years of professional experience. There were 5 players with 4 or more years of professional experience on the current iteration–3 of those played over 34 games [half the season]: Stevenson, Riley, Hamilton.

              For reference. Under Ward 2012-13 average age of players playing 15 or more games: 25.2. Under Huska 2015-16, 15 or more games: 21.1. The team that won the Heat’s division this year, Ontario: 24.3.

              The “Huska is bad” argument is poor because it’s lazy. Most of the people making that argument will readily admit they didn’t watch the Heat this season. A cursory glance at wins/losses and points, doesn’t make a convincing argument that the coach “can’t develop players”. Yes, I will readily admit one “top prospect” took a step backwards this season–Poirier. Outside of that, who were the “top prospects” that regressed? Who were these “top prospects” to begin with? The only one off the top of my head is Kylington, who made huge leaps forward in his development this season from the eyes test alone.

            • Parallex

              Echo this.

              Super annoying. A bunch of people calling into question Huska’s coaching credentials basically on account of a single player (Poirier) having less points this year then last year. Ridicules.

            • SmellOfVictory

              Incidentally, Huska employed Hartley’s systems in the minors. Prior to him, Ward refused to implement Hartley’s systems (because he wanted to win games instead), which led to him being fired.

    • Bikeit

      I always thought that Brian Sutter got more out of those really bad teams leaving us without a plum draft pick. Button as GM is right in the era of the worst three coaches and his drafting sucked. “The TSN expert”

      • Greg

        Ya, Button, Hay, and Gilbert. That’s a Lowe, mactavish, Eakins quality trio there.

        I hated the Riseborough dismantling phase in the 90s but at least he had the shifting dollar and NHL economics as an excuse. Those guys were just plain terrible.

    • Greg

      You got the top and bottom ends of the list right, but there’s some really questionable rankings in the middle. Jimmy Playfair at 6??? He seemed as I’ll-equipped and lost as Dallas Eakins did.

      Those first two though… Gilbert and Hay. Ugh. Their tenures made me cry. Thanks for bringing back such painful memories.

      • KACaribou

        Playfair should not be 6 under any circumstances, but upon leaving I think it is fair to remind everyone how disappointed Playfair was that the Flames’ best player wouldn’t work hard at practice or even show up; so it was hard to implement coaching strategies.

        Yeah, Jarome.

    • Greg

      Does anyone else remember the heated stick-slashing exchange between Don Hay and Jeff Cowan at a flames practice? That was a moment where I thought this guy can’t even command respect from a depth roster player. And sure enough, he didn’t last even 1 season.

      I remember Greg Gilbert coming in and seeming so much more confident and composed… Until he decided to pick a feud with Savard and cost us a first line Center for nothing.

      Like I said, painful memories. Those were the bleakest of years.

      • Parallex

        … I think FN has been pretty up front about it’s opinion on Hartley (one I largely share). Why would it start “thinly veiling” it now?

        Nope. This is exactly what it appears to be, A article on Flames coaches since the coaching is topical right now.

    • redwhiteblack

      Seems the norm here to have a bad losing coach than a winning one. I hope history changes with the next one. Be interesting if there was a draft system for new younger coaches.

      Darryl was a great coach, but he went loco as GM. Crisp was good and lead us all the way. But Bob Johnson was miles better than the rest of them. “Its a great day for hockey!”

    • Hubcap1

      As much as some of these coaches performed badly, I put some of the blame on some horrible post Fletcher GM’s, here’s looking at you Reisbrough and Button, as well as the tough times in the 90’s and early 00’s with the low dollar and general economics of the time for hockey in Canada.

    • KACaribou

      What a bunch of guess-work based on some statistics examined by people who mostly never saw any of these coaches actually coaching!

      Pike, your order is askew. It was a good idea, but it would be better if you could bring in some first hand knowledge rather than your own speculation based on numbers, which granted is the only way you can do it (like when you didn’t have Lanny McDonald in the Flames all time top 10 forwards).

      FN, you love Tree because he brought in Hamilton. Not sure where this Dougie Fetish comes from? But Tree’s stupid moves will continue to compound and eventually he will be crapped upon right here, as everyone eventually is.

      A lot of Bob Johnson’s brilliance was because of the GM Cliff Fletcher, finding and bringing in the right players to fend off the Oilers’ dynasty – at least to some degree. He really didn’t win much that was important and was a strange duck who did strange things coaching.

      Crispy was a tough, rah-rah guy, but certainly inferior to most on the list when it comes to X & Os.

      Darryl Sutter is a great coach, not a great GM, but an absolutely great coach. We’d be lucky to get him back. Hartley is in the top 5 for sure. Every coach you have before him 9-4, were complete disasters.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        Darryl Sutter could not return to Calgary as just the coach. Sure his title would be coach, but you know that he would constantly be buzzing in the ears of Tre offering unwanted advice about player personnel. I don’t think he did this in LA, but the relationship between the Flames and the city with Sutter is very different from the one he had with LA. During the Mad Mike Keenan years, Sutter was Teflon. No matter how bad his moves were and they were–remember Amonte and McCarty–Flames fans initially bought these moves because they regarded Sutter as some sort of guru based on the lightning in a bottle 04 run.

        Bringing Sutter back would be a hemlock or honey move and I think Tre isn’t going to the plate to either K or hit a dinger.

    • slapshot444

      Looks like no2 might be coming back. I never did like Sutter but everyone seems to think he’s a great coach. I’d rather someone younger, I don’t buy into the re cycling of the senior coaches, I don’t see a lot of success with it.

    • Big Ell

      Mine would be Johnson, Sutter, Crisp, King and Hartley. I agree with a lot of what KACaribou said about the coaches and I watched it all.

      I also forgot about the Lanny diss which is unbelievable.

    • I’d be interested how Ryan came to the rankings he did. I’m assuming there was some analytic-based metrics used here, but I’m not sure what. (Not that I’m disagreeing with the list)

      For those that are curious, if we ranked all the coaches as far as win percentage it would look like this:

      17. Brian Sutter: 87-117-37-5
      246 Games 216 Points (.439)

      16. Greg Gilbert: 42-56-17-6
      121 Games 107 Points (.442)

      15. Bernie Geoffrion: 75-94-39-0
      208 Games 189 Points (.454)

      14. Don Hay: 23-28-13-4
      68 Games 63 Points (.463)

      13. Guy Charon: 6-7-3-0
      16 Games 15 Points (.469)

      12. Pierre Page: 68-78-20-0
      166 Games 156 Points (.470)

      11. Bob Hartley: 134-135-0-25
      294 Games 293 Points (.498)

      10. Al MacNeil: 107-98-46-0
      251 Games 260 Points (.518)

      9. Fred Creighton: 156-136-56-0
      348 Games 368 Points (.529)

      8. Bob Johnson: 193-155-48-0
      396 Games 434 Points (.548)

      7. Doug Risebrough: 71-56-17-0
      144 Games 159 Points (.552)

      6. Brent Sutter: 118-90-0-38
      246 Games 274 Points (.557)

      5. Dave King: 109-76-31-0
      216 Games 249 Points (.576)

      4. Darryl Sutter: 107-73-15-15
      210 Games 244 Points (.581)

      3. Jim Playfair: 43-29-0-10
      82 Games 96 Points (.585)

      2. Mike Keenan: 88-60-0-16
      164 Games 192 Points (.585)

      1. Terry Crisp: 144-63-33-0
      240 Games 321 Points (.669)

      Now, with that said, I realize there’s more that should be factored in than simply win percentage (strength of your roster will determine expectations which in turn will determine how success your coaching career is), but it’s an interesting look anyway.