26Glen Gulutzan
Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn / USA Today Sports

Season in review: Glen Gulutzan

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:

Season Record CF% SF% SCF% GF% SH% SV% PDO PP% PK%
2015-16 35-40-7 47.90 49.36 49.19 46.95 8.29 90.87 .992 17.0 75.5
2016-17 45-33-4 50.53 50.56 49.94 49.30 7.60 92.01 .996 20.2 81.6

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.

What’s next?

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.

  • buts

    Player usage is my big concern about GG. He just kept repeating the same mistakes over and over. i.e. giving Brouwer to much ice time and PP time, his usage of Ferland, the mental fragility of the team as a whole when a bad goal went in and lastly not starting Johnson in game 3 or 4 of the playoffs. I believe if not for the 2 hot streaks, 1 by Johnson and the other by Elliott there might be articles on whether he should be replaced.

  • Parallex

    Yeah, there’s some reason for optimism heading into next season… there are still causes for concern. His insistence on L-R pairings is a PITA (now Treliving will have to go find a legit top 4 RS blueliner rather then pick from the larger pool of just legit top 4 blueliner) and it took him so long to realize that Brouwer isn’t good that one could easily see him regressing on that front.

    But he figured stuff out and hopefully most of it will stick through the summer.

  • TheRealPoc

    Couldn’t be happier with Gulutzan’s first season in charge. Structurally, this team looked noticeably different from the Hartley era – the emphasis on playing as units of five wasn’t just lip service, and you saw forwards curling lower in the defensive & neutral zones to provide support w/o possession and outlet options w/ possession (maybe video breakdown of DZ recoveries and NZ regroups, and how they changed from Hartley’s system to Gulutzan’s system, would be a fun MikeFAIL post? Just sayin’ 🙂 ).

    The other thing that should be touched on – it’s important to acknowledge the soft skills side of a coaching staff, and I think there’s a lot to be said about how this team persevered after a horrid start and presented a united front throughout. Friedman made reference in a 30 Thoughts piece during the ’15-’16 season that the players were getting exasperated with Hartley’s micromanaging (can’t find the piece, but it was a relayed anecdote on players getting asked at the face-off dot what they thought of Hartley and the reviews were not good); we don’t have the full insights obviously, but it definitely appears like Gulutzan is much more of a “player’s coach” and I can only assume that was a welcomed change. 82 games – and the thousands of miles logged between them – is a marathon, and any of us who’ve been on long-term work projects understand the importance of positive leadership. Clearly, the systems and the results need to validate the approach, but I’ve been impressed all season long with Gulutzan’s maturity and balance – very rarely was the whip cracked in public, and I think there’s a healthy level of respect being built within that room.

    Excited for 2017-18 and beyond.

  • Derzie

    The question I ask is would I hire GG knowing what I know now. I look at the playoffs to see what works in today’s NHL. GG is a Corsi-coach. Nashville is 3rd best, Pitt is 2nd worst. One can conclude that Corsi is not essential to winning. The common element seems to be maximizing the assets you have and managing your lineup to match opponents. GG is poor in those areas. Would I hire GG knowing what I know now? The answer is no.

  • BringtheFire

    Yeah, I like him, but I don’t think for a coach that a year is a big enough sample to accurately judge, so my expectations are second round next year, then GG and I will definitely be cool (but we’re mosatly cool now).

    But with this team-and most probably all others as well-if a player misses training camp they lose a quarter of their season catching up. Happened to Backs last year and Johnny this year. Glad the article touched on it.

    So here’s to a healthy camp in the fall!!

      • Skylardog

        Saying it 20 games into last season doesn’t make the comment wrong. He never should have been hired in the first place. He was the wrong choice. Time will tell. And the goalies will not bail him out this year.

          • Skylardog

            Elliott and Johnson, when at their worst, were as good as the goalies in 15/16. And during the streaks, were far superior to the goalies in 15/16 and they were the difference. Go analyse the 2 streaks looking at the shots on goal for both teams and the save percentages. Go look at the Corsis for those streaks. They were horrific during the Johnson streak, and 50% for the Elliott streak. Should a 50% Corsi translate into a 10 game win streak? Probably not. Also analyse who they played. Yes they beat some good teams, but most games were against non playoff teams.

  • Raffydog

    “It was far from perfect. They were swept in the playoffs, after all – even if it was undeservedly.”
    How was it undeservedly? They played terrible, and lost to a better team. They couldn’t score 5v5, and deserved to be swept. When you blow a 4-1 lead in the playoffs, that’s on the coach. I have very little faith in GG, his player usage is mind boggling, and his left/right shot thing is bizarre, and shows he can’t adapt because he is to stubborn to change. Like somebody said earlier, if it wasn’t for two hot streaks from both goalies, we’re having a completely different conversation right now.

    • Skylardog

      As a team the Flames were -41 in the playoffs. All players were negative, except for F. Hamilton and Lazar who were even and played about 7 minutes or less in the series.

      Yup – That’s a great case for GG’s brand of improved 5v5 hockey.

  • Skylardog

    Without the 2 hot winning streaks he is gone. His time in Dallas proved he is not a capable NHL coach, he quite simply does not have the right mentality and bench presence. He helped Dallas’ Corsi numbers in year 1 then slid back in year 2. Dallas improved vastly after he was fired. This guy is a goof.

    He proved in the playoffs, the time when he should have had it all figured out, that he had no clue how to use his players. Ferland had less icetime than Chaisson & Brouwer, yet was supposedly on the first line. Ferland should be pissed at how he was used in the playoffs. That is just the tip of the iceberg on player usage.

    The 2 winning streaks have set this team back 2 years. Elliott and Johnson posting 950ish save percentages, where the team played a weak schedule against mostly non playoff teams against backup goalies secured his job. Just post 920s during those runs and the Flames lose 14 points from the season totals and are 10th in the West and out of the playoffs. That’s not coaching, that’s luck and goaltending. Opposition goalies were below 900 save percentages during those games. Elliott and Johnson secured his job for most if not all of this upcoming season.

    Do any of us really see him being capable of taking any team to the Stanley Cup Finals. Be realistic. The answer is no. He’s the wrong guy. He was when he was hired.

    The Flames (BT) was so negligent in the firing of BH by letting it slip into May that they missed out on Boudreau, and more importantly, Boucher. His time here can’t end soon enough.

      • Skylardog

        Really – do you think as far as candidates go, when the Flames were hiring coaches, that BT and Flames management would have ranked GG ahead of Boucher? Boucher signed with Ottawa before the door even closed as Hartley left, and so did Boudreau.

        Funny how our assistant coach leaves Ottawa and Boucher takes Ottawa to the semis. Is Karlson a better player this year under Boucher, or last year under Cameron? No contest.

        Were Gaudreau, Monahan, Hamilton, Brodie, Gio, and Bennett better players under GG or under Hartley – be honest, the core backtracked last season. Was Elliott up to his potential based on his time in St Louis? And look at this one honestly, thinking about the last 10 regular season games and playoffs. Was Tkachuk a better player in game 20 or in game 82 and the playoffs?

  • C Watson

    What I get a kick out is how these bloggers are so good at hindsight. Never once, prior to the dismissal of Hartley, did I ever read on this site, or any other, about how bad a coach Bob Hartley was. Ever since its been “we told you so” here on Flames Nation and on 960 the Fan.
    My questions are, who pulled in Ferland’s horns, who pulled in Tkachuk’s horns and why are the kids not allowed to develop even when they are notably better than, oh let’s see, Bartkowski?

  • Just.Visiting

    I’ll give him mixed grades. The team enhanced some aspects of their play, as did some of the players. The staff also seemed to have the support of the players, and the team seems to have a positive team dynamic. On the other side of the equation…..Some of the key players regressed this year relative to what we expected, particularly Bennett and Brodie…A few of the players had a tendency to take undisciplined/lazy penalties, much more so than under Hartley, where this pattern continued into the playoffs… I don’t think that Kulak and some of the other Stockton call ups were used properly, but, in fairness, I thought the same about Hartley. The aspect of greatest concern to me related to the line up choices in terms of both sticking with things that obviously weren’t working and overplaying certain players (Hamilton not being first unit PP, Ferland being buried on the fourth line for much of the season, Wideman playing when he shouldn’t have been, Chiasson being played on the first line for way too long, Brouwer on the PP, etc.). While I know that there will be those who disagree with me, I was also extremely disappointed in the way that Elliott was humiliated by being pulled after one goal when he carried the team into the playoffs. He could have easily started Chad instead, but chose not to do that. I wonder how much respect he lost with the veterans as a consequence of that choice. I hope that he reflects objectively on the year, assesses how best to build on the things that he does well and learns from the things he didn’t do nearly as well. In many ways, this season will be one of the most important seasons in the evolution of the team, as the choices made this season will have a significant impact on the team’s ability to be a serious contender in the two to three seasons that follow.

    • Puckhead

      I agree – there are good and bad things to say about GG. This is his make or break year.

      Last season was frustrating at times and this year better be an improvement – no excuses anymore.

      • freethe flames

        Coaches can only coach what is given them. BT needs to find a way to upgrade this team. Losing Eng’s and Wides allows BT to upgrade the D core whether that is from within with players like Kulak and Andersson or from the outside market. Player usage is on the coach and playing Brouwer on the 4th line and on the PP made little sense to me. Once GG found the proper home for Chaisson things began to improve for Chaisson. He is a 3rd line 4th line winger at best. Having the $10m line as your 4th line is problematic and that is up to the GM address the coach is stuck using what he has. Unfortunately I see GG being stuck with 2/3 of that line again next year. If one or two of the kids can push the pile sending Bouma to the AHL is a relatively easy solution for moving 1/3 of the line. I don’t see anyone wanting Brouwer so he either ups his game or becomes a $4+ popcorn eater(I don’t buying him out for 3 years). Stajan has one year left but is a serviceable 4th liner but overpaid for the role. Hate or love GG but lets not forget BT and a lesser extent BB role in giving him the players he has to choose from.