It wasn’t surprising that Bob Hartley was relieved of his coaching duties just a year after winning the Jack Adams. What was surprising, though, was who replaced him.
Having spent the previous three seasons as an assistant coach on a mostly bad Vancouver Canucks team, Glen Gulutzan found himself back in a head coaching position for the first time since the 2013 lockout season. Gulutzan’s name had often come up throughout the Flames’ 2016 offseason coaching search – of all the teams with fired coaches that summer, the Flames were the last ones to hire somebody – until it was made official on June 17, 2016.
It’s been almost a full year of Gulutzan. What’s changed?
Season at a glance
Gulutzan’s start with the Flames was really, really bad.
He had inherited a team that was supposed to be on the upswing. The core was another year older, another year more developed. He had a small handful of young stars to work with, and though he had to deal with some expiring bad contracts, the expectations had been set. I mean, let’s be honest with ourselves: readers of this blog were well aware that we, at least, felt Hartley had to go, but I’d imagine the overall fanbase perception was, “This guy, who hasn’t accomplished much in the NHL, is being asked to take over for a guy who was just named coach of the year. He’d better be good.”
He started off by pairing Mark Giordano with Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie with Deryk Engelland, and Dougie Hamilton with Nicklas Grossmann. Because there’s needing time to get familiar with your new team, and then there’s deciding Grossmann should be played with one of your best defencemen and having him turn the puck over like a minute into the season for an easy goal for your biggest rivals.
In fairness to Gulutzan, he did have some disadvantages not created by his own hand. His top line to start the year – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Kris Versteeg – was sound in theory, but also consisted of two wingers who had not been a part of the Flames’ training camp and a centre who missed a fair amount of it with injury. He, like any new coach, also did, in general, need more time with his new team – and as the season went on, that paid off.
That didn’t stop us from being so flabbergasted against his defence pairings that we pitted him against dice, though; nor did it stop us from speculating just how long Gulutzan should have to make his case. The start to the season was downright unwatchable at times, and it looked like another wasted year.
But things slowly but surely turned around, starting with Gulutzan’s test in putting Matthew Tkachuk on a line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik. Uniting Giordano and Hamilton followed soon after, and suddenly, the Flames – with a coach less focused on blocking shots, more focused on driving play north – had an elite five-man unit at their disposal.
… Just five men, though. A couple of other things helped out along the way, such as Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott, at separate times, playing at high levels. Monahan remembered how to play hockey; Gaudreau returned early from injury and found himself back in a scoring groove.
There were struggles too, however. Troy Brouwer got far longer a leash than he ever deserved. Alex Chiasson was granted too many opportunities Micheal Ferland wasn’t (though to Gulutzan’s credit, he did eventually rectify that in the final quarter of the season). Brett Kulak couldn’t seem to get a fair shake, and a general reluctance to give rookies not taken sixth overall prevailed, as guys like Hunter Shinkaruk and Rasmus Andersson ultimately spent their recalls not really doing anything.
But Gulutzan did turn the Flames back into a playoff team. And not a Hartley-style playoff team, either; one that looked like they actually belonged, even with all of the bumps accumulated along the way. They fought through moments of mental weakness (if there’s any defining storyline to Gulutzan’s time with the Flames so far, it’s beer) to a 10-game win streak and beyond.
It was far from perfect. They were swept in the playoffs, after all – even if it was undeservedly, they were still swept. But over the course of the season, Gulutzan chipped away at skepticism surrounding his hire and very early calls to dismiss him to look like a legitimate NHL coach. And for a team that’s supposed to just now start knocking on the window of contention, that’s exactly what he needed to do.
Growth in numbers
All numbers 5v5 via NaturalStatTrick, aside from the PP and PK:
The Flames, upon switching from Hartley to Gulutzan, exhibited growth across the board. They out-possessed and outshot other teams. They came close to breaking even on scoring chances and goals throughout the year. Their shooting percentage dropped, but they performed better despite that; getting goaltending at parts throughout the year no doubt helped, though.
But this season wasn’t a fluke the way Hartley’s Jack Adams year was, nor was it fluke growth over his final year as the Flames’ head coach. Their PDO – essentially a proxy for luck – remained almost the same. This was the same team, but with a renewed, rejuvenated philosophy more suited for the modern NHL that saw a much-improved record, and underlying numbers to back up a sound hypothesis that this team is, in fact getting better – and Gulutzan’s hiring has likely been a major factor in that improvement.
Barring a completely unforeseen catastrophic collapse – which is entirely possible, but not something anyone would predict – Gulutzan’s job is secure for 2017-18, but the expectations are now raised, too.
Playoffs are a given demand. Making some noise is hoped for, but not necessarily required criterion. But gone are the excuses for any slow starts. Gulutzan doesn’t have to get to know his team now; barring the offseason changes coming up that literally every team undergoes, he knows who he has to work with now.
His top two scorers probably aren’t going to miss training camp in September. He has some semblance of what a functional defence can look like for this group as opposed to “let’s pair the guys who suck with the guys who don’t and maybe they’ll balance aaaand my team just got scored on again whoops”. He knows Backlund is his shutdown guy, he knows Ferland is more deserving of an opportunity, and… well, we’ll see what happens with Brouwer.
What’s next should be a good season – and it’s nice the Flames have gotten the bumpy introductory year out of the way already.