Glen Gulutzan has coached the Calgary Flames for two full seasons. He’s an engaging speaker and a very cerebral, astute person. Moreover, he’s a part of a new wave of young hockey coaches bringing open minds and new ideas to the coaching ranks.
Gulutzan is a man with many positive qualities that can lend themselves to coaching success. Unfortunately, the events of the past 82 games and the very specific challenges they were unable to overcome make it extremely difficult to justify keeping him or his staff behind the bench of the Flames beyond this point. It seems extremely likely that there will be coaching changes for the organization going forward.
Every coach and coaching staff has players that they seemingly play too much. For Gulutzan and company, there was an over-reliance on a struggling T.J. Brodie at even strength (he played more than any other Flame, an average of 30 seconds per game more than Mark Giordano). There was also a general hesitance for much of the season to use Brett Kulak very much, to the point where the Flames essentially became a two-pairing team at certain points in games and stapled Kulak and Michael Stone to the bench. Gulutzan also seemed to be hesitant to shorten his bench in close games, often rolling the third and even fourth lines late in tight games.
The reliance on Brodie also speaks to a stubbornness regarding the effectiveness of Brodie and Travis Hamonic as a pairing. The pairing wasn’t a great fit for much of the season, but the coaching staff stuck with it regardless of results. Brodie spent 87% of his even strength ice time with Hamonic, robbing the coaching staff of potential chances to try them out with other partners; the only significant time Brodie spent with another partner was his stint with Stone when Hamonic was injured.
The team’s special teams deployments have been a bit… weird. Despite being some of the team’s most productive even strength scorers, it took forever – and some injuries – for Dougie Hamilton and Matthew Tkachuk to factor into the first unit power play. All due respect to the players, but it’s really weird for two bottom six players like Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer to spend so much time playing on the power play when their scoring numbers at even strength are so rough. The penalty killing units haven’t been as wonky, but there’s arguably been an over-reliance on Matt Stajan and Brouwer as a unit when Mark Jankowski and Garnet Hathaway showed some promise in those roles down the stretch. It’s also a bit strange that Tkachuk, Hamilton and Sam Bennett never really factored into the overtime deployments until well into the season.
Systems and structure
For a team that spent so much time and effort building up its defensive group, the Flames sure have been bad in their own end during the past season. Looking at their possession metrics – Corsi, Fenwick, shots, scoring chances, high-danger chances – they’re an average suppression team that’s been challenged with some bad luck. However, you can make an argument that a lot of their “bad luck” has been exacerbated by some really rough transition work. The Flames have routinely failed to make quick transition passes and get out of their zone with momentum, often losing the puck inside their own blueline and having to scramble. Their neutral zone game has been fine, but far too often they’ve made life tough on themselves by stretching their forwards into the neutral zone for passes way too early and allowing the other team to intercept passes and get additional scoring chances.
How can a power play that features several gifted offensive players be so bad? Feast your eyes on the Flames, who somehow seemed less able to gain the offensive zone and create pressure on the power play than at even strength. The team really struggled throughout the season to consistently gain the offensive zone and set up shop. When they did gain the zone, they were excellent at generating scoring chances – they were third in both chances and high-danger chances per 60 minutes – but not at scoring goals. They finished the season 29th in power play percentage overall despite being among the league’s leaders in power play time.
The penalty kill was decent this season. They were around the middle of the pack in terms of suppressing Corsi, Fenwick and shots, but they weren’t as good at shutting down scoring chances or high-danger chances. The PK units in general seemed a lot less aggressive this season than last, seemingly content to react rather than to pressure. That’s definitely a conscious change from last season, and it’s one that made the units arguably less effective – they allowed more chances and scoring chances per 60 this season than they did last season.
Way back in 2014-15, the Flames were a team playing with house money. Nobody expected much out of them after they finished bottom five in the NHL the season prior, so they played loose hockey. They also found themselves on the happy side of several improbable third period comebacks, to the point where Sportsnet 960’s Derek Wills dubbed them the “Find A Way Flames.” They consistently played like a team that was waiting for something good to happen. Quite often, something good did happen – granted, it was followed by a massive correction of their team-wide percentages the following season.
The 2017-18 Flames are the spiritual inverse of the “Find A Way Flames.” I’ve called them the “Charlie Brown Flames,” in that they’re perpetually trying (but failing) to kick the football. They’re a team that really, really deflates when they get down one goal (and even moreso when down a pair). It’s not a phenomenon exclusive to this season, though. I wrote about it last January:
As you would expect, the Flames get more puck possession when they’re down because of score effects: a team that’s winning a game sits back a bit and doesn’t pursue the puck as actively. However, both the Flames goaltending (90.77%) and shooting (5.11%) are atrocious. It’s unclear whether the Flames simply give up on the game at the point they go down two goals and give up high-danger chances against and settle for low-danger chances for, but those two aspects of their game are strangely awful.
We’re going to dig into it during our post-mortem during the next few weeks, but the team utterly deflating over each of the past two seasons when down a goal or two is on the coaching staff and the team’s leadership.
Other “intangible” challenges the Flames faced this season include David Rittich losing his consistency and composure during Mike Smith’s one month injury absence – resulting in the club rotating through him and Jon Gillies when they desperately needed wins – and a general lack of in-game tactical or lineup adjustments, aside from those forced by injuries. (The in-game adjustments tended to be along the lines of “Oh, a winger is injured, so it’s time to double-shift Matthew Tkachuk or Johnny Gaudreau.”)
It’s time for a change
Two questions come to mind when I try to assess the work done by the current coaching staff. Did Brad Treliving do everything he could to address the team’s deficiencies over the summer? And has Gulutzan’s coaching staff done everything they can to elevate the pieces they’ve been given and maximize their output?
After the Flames were swept by Anaheim, the big criticisms of the team’s composition were their goaltending and their defensive depth. Treliving went and shipped out a ton of assets – including the team’s first three picks in this year’s entry draft – to bring in Smith and Hamonic and to re-up Stone. It’s hard to argue that Treliving didn’t do a lot.
But for a team with as many talented players on it, that spent the type of assets they spent to put together this lineup, the number and type of problems they’ve had really spell out that they need to change something. They can’t fire the team, so the coaching staff seems like the most obvious way to do that.
The Flames have lots of cap space. They have effectively every key piece of their core group signed through 2019-20, aside from perhaps Tkachuk. They have two years to maximize the output from this core group before big contracts expire and they have to deal with the Seattle expansion draft. Based on the results we’ve seen to this point, they probably need some kind of new coaching staff to do that.