What are realistic expectations for Glen Gulutzan?

The reaction seemed to be mostly positive when the Calgary Flames hired Glen Gulutzan as head coach in the middle of June. Gulutzan made a good first impression and addressed a number of things Flames fans had become frustrated with under Bob Hartley’s regime, namely possession and blocked shots. Now in his second job as an NHL head coach, let’s delve into what we might expect from Gulutzan, specifically in the early going.

As we’ve talked about here before, the impact of a coach can sometimes be tough to evaluate. While there are some elite coaches like Alain Vigneault and Darryl Sutter with proven track records of elevating whatever team they preside over, those guys are the exception to the norm. That said, by looking at some historical notes and a few other factors, we can start to maybe get a better idea of what the Flames might have in store. I’ll say I’m cautiously optimistic about what we might see this year under Gulutzan.

The roster

Of all the areas a coach has control of, the makeup of his team’s roster is far down the list. And yet, the group of players assembled is typically what makes a coach look good or bad. Mike Babcock wasn’t able to do much with that horrid collection of Maple Leafs last season while Mike Sullivan took over a supremely talented Penguins team and guided them to a Stanley Cup. Sure, coaches are important, but those examples paint a pretty clear picture of how much more important a properly assembled team is.

To that end, Gulutzan is going to have more to work with than Bob Hartley did the last number of years. By adding Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson between the pipes, the Flames should be significantly more competitive by default. I think enough has been written about Calgary’s goaltending situation in recent months so I won’t belabour the point any further.

The Flames are also potentially set to take a slight step forward both up front and on the back end. I wrote earlier this summer how personnel addition and subtraction hasn’t necessarily made the team better, but natural progression has, or hopefully will. Steps forward from Sean Monahan, (ahem) Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton should do the trick in that regard.

Taking everything into account, I think Gulutzan takes over a team better suited to compete than the team we saw start and finish last season. That in and of itself should make for better results this year; if Gulutzan is able to start truly turning Calgary’s negative possession train around, then the dividends could be felt even more.

Personal history

While he only had one full season and a second shortened one with the Dallas Stars, we do have have some results to go one from Gulutzan’s only other NHL head coaching stop. The Stars missed the playoffs in both years Gulutzan was behind the bench while putting up middling results in the underlying categories. Below is a quick look at Dallas’s possession for those two seasons.

table1

While those numbers aren’t going to knock your socks off, I’ll add a little context to help frame the whole picture. The Stars were an even worse possession team prior to Gulutzan taking over (48.2%, 24th overall) and saw modest improvement with what could be described as a so-so roster. We weren’t talking about Bill Peters stuff in Carolina, but there was definitely an improvement.

If Gulutzan can do the same thing with the Flames in his first year or two with the team, I think it can be looked at as a modest success. Gulutzan talked very highly of analytics and the importance of possession upon being hired, which also gives me reason for optimism. Obviously there’s no correlation from one team to the next, but seeing a bump in offensive zone time next season is a realistic expectation.

The other area I’m hoping to see improvement on is on the penalty kill. Already this summer I had a chance to profile new assistant Paul Jerrard, as he’s going to be the one directly responsible for the team’s PK. But Gulutzan will have a ton of input too, specifically knowing he handled those same responsibilities as an assistant in Vancouver the last three years. By and large, he did a pretty decent job with that task.

table2

If Gulutzan and Jerrard can get the Flames from 30th on the penalty kill to, like, even close to league average this season, I think we can deem year one was a success. A modest jump like that would account for a significant reduction in goals against, so we’ll cross our fingers past history repeats itself here.

We’ll do the opposite when it comes to the other special team. As Mike Fail pointed out upon his hiring, Dave Cameron’s track record in running a powerplay is not stellar. Calgary’s other new assistant will be in charge of that once again, so I’m certainly feeling a little more skeptical on that front. I’m not passing judgment until I see Cameron’s poweprlay in action, but this is one area where we hope the past remains the past.

Comparable history

While it can’t really be tracked analytically or statistically, I have always been fascinated by the second NHL coaching opportunity. Gulutzan even admitted upon his hiring he was perhaps a little unprepared for all the highest level entailed in his two years with Dallas. So he be able to use that experience to make him a better coach this time around? A couple recent examples suggest it’s a possibility.

Let’s start with Todd Richards in Columbus, formerly of Minnesota and, more recently, Columbus. The first go around was not a good one for Richards as the Wild missed the playoffs in both of his seasons behind the bench. After spending some time as an assistant with the Blue Jackets, he was promoted to head coach midway through the 2011-2012 campaign. His second head coaching stint was a little more successful.

In the three full seasons they had under Richards the Jackets made the postseason once, narrowly missed another year, and were ravaged by injuries in his final complete campaign. Richards was dismissed seven games into this past season after the team got off to an 0-7 start, but I still think it’s fair to say he was better in stop two than one.

The same can be said about Peter DeBoer in his second kick at the can as an NHL head coach. A highly touted hire coming out of junior, DeBoer never really got a sniff of the postseason in three years with the Florida Panthers. After being fired to finish the 2010-2011 season, DeBoer caught on with the Devils and saw them get to game six of the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing out to the Kings.

DeBoer’s next couple of years weren’t anywhere near as successful, but roster turnover had a huge part to play in that. Oh, and his third stop has been pretty good, too; he just happened to oversee the San Jose Sharks in their run to the most recent Cup Final.

This is certainly not an exact science and I would never present it as such. However, I do think there’s something to the theory. Being an NHL head coach isn’t easy and it’s even more difficult the first time out. If things were to go better for Gulutzan in his second NHL stop, it would stand to reason his first kick at the can with Dallas taught him valuable lessons. If we can see results similar to what we saw from Richards and/or DeBoer, I think most Flames fans will be happy.

  • RKD

    I’m looking for Gulutzan to improve our special teams especially the pk and pp. If those two areas get corrected along with better goaltending we have a very good shot at the playoffs. I want to see more of possession type game. The Bob Hartley era may have been uptempo and entertaining but blocking shots and dump and chase isn’t sustainable. I’m hoping Bennett takes a big step forward so if Gulutzan can take our younger players up a notch that is also a success.

  • Thunder1

    I think you’re bang on, Pat. If all things stay the same with the PP and the big three in Johnny, Monny and Gio score about a hundred again this season, Elliot and Johnson alone will provide ten extra points in the standings. Sammy needs to show this year if he really wants to be considered a core guy, and I think he will. Thirty from him is not out of the question. Backlund and Frolik should lead the PK into the top half of the league or better and that gives us the extra five or so points we need to make the dance next year. The personnel alone available to Gulutzan this time around is better than what he had in Dallas. I just hope he doesn’t win the dreaded coach of the year race as a result.

  • Kevin R

    Thanks Patty! I have no freaking idea what to expect this year. I honestly don’t know if the goaltending tainted our D that much that our big 3 were overlooked for the WC. I have a gut feeling these goalies are going to allow our big 3 to show the NHL world our blue line is way better than the respect they are being given. I think all Gully has to do is utilize players on the power play better than Bob did & we’ll see a difference. Between an improved PP & Goaltending, it’s a no brainer this team is going to get more wins than last year.

    Patty, can you tell Tre to just give Johnny his 7.5 per for 7-8 years & call it a day. Gaudreau is a franchise player & I see him being more valuable to this Flames team in the next couple years than Gio. No offense to Gio. Lets make 7.5mill per the new ceiling $$$$ given to a Flame. It’s time. Iggy got 7.0 mill per & that was years ago. Just give him the money.

    Thx Patty!

    • Baalzamon

      Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton weren’t the problem. Wideman, Russell, Engelland, and Smid were.

      Them and the sudden regression of Hiller. Every other goalie played to reasonable expectations.

      • Kevin R

        I don’t think you can just pin this on Hiller, Flames were pretty well the worst goals against in the league & that does not bode well on the perception/optics of our D & you can’t just pin everything on Wideman/Russell/Smid/Engellend as they were primarily injured/suspended/traded for almost the 2nd half of the season & played way fewer minutes(maybe with the exception of Hamilton). Unless you are saying our top 3 are over rated?

        • Baalzamon

          No one could have expected more from Ortio, Backstrom hadn’t played hockey in over a year (and was already awful before then) and Ramo posted a .914 sv% outside October. Hiller was the only one who didn’t live up to reasonable expectations.

          And I can absolutely “just pin everything” on the bad defensemen. The top three are really good. But they’re only on for half the game. The rest of them are terrible (and one of the good ones, usually Hamilton, had to drag around one of the dregs).

          The Flames surrendered the 11th fewest shots on goal in the league last season. It was all non-Ramo goaltending and the bottom half of the blueline that were the problem.

          • beloch

            Hopefully we’ll see some turnover in the bottom three this season. There are a few kids in Stockton who seem ready to push for spots. Jokipakka should be an improvement on the third pairing. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but I’d like to think the reason Nakladal hasn’t signed anywhere is that he’s been promised a contract that will be inked the day Smid goes on LTIR.

          • Kevin R

            Not sure I agree again with you. Ramo & Ortio were .909 & .902 save %.
            I don’t exclude games where the suck was so bad that you omit from the conversation. Sorry, the final standings don’t work that way. Neither of these save %’s is acceptable if you expect to be a playoff team. End of story. So no, more than Hiller did not play up to expectations.

            I went to the games & Ortio fell to his knees continually. I had zero confidence when he was in net & quite frankly, I don’t think the players had any either. That affects performance & how players aggressively play their game, which was the reason for my initial post.

            Seeing we are talking goals against, I see the relevance of Gio was a -5,
            Brodie a +4, Hamilton -14, Russell -4, Engellend +7 & Wideman a -9.
            Smid shouldn’t have been on the ice, -7 in just 22 games played.
            I think when you start looking at overall performance of the full year, it was the whole defensive team that did not have a stellar season. Hence, omissions from WC roster selections, not that that is necessarily a bad thing.

            Last little tidbit & I hate doing I heard from a buddy of a buddy type of story. But, that buddy of a buddy :-} knew Ferland who is apparently ecstatic about the direction the Flames management took on the goaltending situation. I must say, for myself, getting Elliott & Johnson for next year is huge, bigger than many realize. Dont underestimate how a player changes their game to with confidence as compared to conservative not sure they would take that chance in spit decision making on the ice during a game. Confidence=Need to Achieve versus Non-confidence=fear of failure. Old textbook sport psychology. Goaltenders performance definitely brings out the best or worst in your blue line defenders.

          • Kevin R

            Yeah I did, because yeah I know it’s not a stat many like to take too seriously, but when you are looking at most goals given up by the team in the league & then blaming 2 or 3 d-men, it’s interesting to see what that stat looks like.

          • piscera.infada

            In fairness, you and @Baalzamon are essentially arguing the same thing. He’s merely saying that what the Flames got out of Ortio and Ramo, are basically what they should have expected out of those two.

            Remember those articles about this time last year, in which many were saying Hiller was the best choice for Flames starting goalie simply because he had the best proven track record? No one saw his game falling off a cliff that precipitously. So basically, you got about what you could expect from both Ramo and Ortio (poor goaltending, based on their respective bodies of work), but the Hiller safety-net was no longer there–and thus, was the impetus for the implosion.

          • OKG

            Ramo and Ortio had adj.FSV℅ that were league average. Behind good teams that could easily have produced SV% above .917 – SV℅ is a team stat not a goalie stat. Adj.FSV℅ is a goalie stat. Hiller’s adj.SV% was terrible, just like him.

    • Greatsave

      With all due respect, it’s easy to say “Tre just give him 7.5m x 8 and get it over with” when we have zero idea what they’re haggling over, what everybody’s asks for term and dollars are, and how far apart they are. At the end of the day it takes two to dance. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gaudreau prefers a shorter deal.

      • Kevin R

        Oh, I would think this is all about the $$$ value of the UFA years Gaudreaus agent is trying to get & knowing Tre, trying to keep his Captain as the highest paid player on the team. Tre wants term as well & if thats on the table, then the $$$ have to go up big time. The only way he goes below Gio money is on a 2-3 year deal. Personally, I don’t see anything where Gaudreau wants a short term deal so he can bolt Calgary. He wants to get paid in accordance to what other elite players would get paid.

        For me, Gaudreau is a franchise player. Every game I watch him play I see an IQ & what I call “Gretzky Vision” on the ice. My biased opinion is that Gaudreau will be as important to the Flames as McDavid will be to the Oilers. McDavid being Canadian & hyped way more than Gaudreau has been, is going to cost the Oilers over $10.mill/year cap hit after his ELC. If we can wrap Johnny up for 7.5mill/per & set the bar for any future contracts, it will be hard for any of our top young guys to ask for more than Gaudreau who will be a perennial top 10 scorer in this league. Again I am very biased, just my take on watching the last 2 years of Gaudreau at the Dome.

      • Macindoc

        Not to mention that based on the fact that Gaudreau has 5 RFA years remaining and is not currently eligible for arbitration or offer sheets, 7.5M/yr X 8 is actually a slight over pay given the number of RFA years, and Treliving may be trying to get it closer to the market value, which would be between 7M and 7.25M. Not that I would mind a bit of an over pay, but it would potentially restrict the club’s future ability to make other signings. Tre is charged with looking at the long view, and I hope he keeps things in perspective in this negotiation.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Flames possession rate next season. They were 25th in in CF% last season, and moving the needle past 50% is required for long term success. I’m hopeful that a team committed to keeping the puck, rather than blocking shots will provide at least a 2% improvement alone.

    With so few changes in skaters this year, I think we’ll be able to see how effective the new coaching staff is, in this regard. Time will tell.

  • The Sultan

    Kevin R is right. Save percentages that are well-below league average are just not acceptable, full stop. I don’t care if you have a roster full of superstars; any team letting in that many goals on average will definitely have a hard time not only trying to make the playoffs, but trying to compete game in and game out in general.

    Pointing fingers as fans is easy, but I’m sure the current iteration of our beloved Calgary Flames live and die, together, on the ice and as a team. That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to cultivate here. While I’ve openly criticized Hiller and Ramo in the past, harshly at times, they are just one cog in wheel with lots of moving parts.. albeit a very important one. I expect the Calgary Flames to take a step forward next year, together and as a whole.

  • OKG

    expectations for GG:

    Minor Penalties under 280 total

    5v5 xGA60 under 2.35
    5v5 xGF60 over 2.35
    4v5 xGA60 under 6.0
    5v4 xGF60 above 5.5
    3v3 Winning record

    All of the above are things he as a coach can influence. He can’t influence player skill or luck.