121Glen Gulutzan
Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn / USA Today Sports

Why Glen Gulutzan and his staff might get fired

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.

Player usage

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.

Intangibles

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.

  • Pete80

    The biggest problem with this coaching staff is their unflinching refusal to adjust when something isn’t working. They’ll roll out that same PP for 20 games with barely a goal, no adjustments. Brodie looks like a star on his off-wing, looks rough on his natural wing, in two years they never try putting him back on his off-wing. Brouwer scored zero PP goals, gets over 60 games on the top unit anyway. Mike Smith obviously isn’t right after his injury, they ride him until we’re mathematically out anyway. You get 45 shots a game and none of them go in, no adjustment. They could hire an actual deer in actual headlights and the lineups would get switched up more often.

    • Gulutzan is a former assistant coach to Willie Desjardins. We Canucks fans were screaming for years to get rid of Desjardins because of his unwillingness to adapt. If something wasn’t working like the power play, WD’s solution was to keep doing it until it worked – the classic definition of insanity. (It *never* worked. We averaged 15% PP during WD’s tenure because our only PP strategies was point shot or backdoor cross-ice feed to the LW. No other PP strategies were EVER implemented in 3 years. With a complete coaching change, we’re now up to 21%.) GG clearly drank that Kool-aid.

  • Rocket66

    I don’t get why some people say Cameron goes. Gg stays.
    I do t think Cameron made the starting lineups every night or placed Brouwer higher than he should have been. I say equal fault

    • John Wayne's Hat

      It seems firing the assistant is the new “fire the head coach”. Like Kitchen in Chicago last year. Maybe due to $$$? Not sure. And, not saying it’s right either. Just seems to be more trendy right now.

  • Jobu

    In relation to the article, Jobu agrees 100% with Mr. Pike. You can buyout a Brouwer and ship out a Brodie, this core isn’t going to change. There is only one option in Jobu’s mind find a coach that
    – builds his system around the team he has, not some preconceived strategic plan
    – rewards good performance
    – punishes bad performance
    – kicks ass when he needs to
    – joins in on the fun when its time
    – has a system that allows for occassional creative freedoms, a.k.a. fun.

    All of the above would fix your motivational problems pretty quick.

    • Beer League Coach

      A good coach communicates with his players. How do you do that when you don’t go into the dressing room before or after games or during the intermissions?

      I am all for a buyout of Brouwer and would not shed any tears if Brodie were traded for a RHS with a knack for scoring goals. Doesn’t need to play RW. Anywhere on the forward lines would be fine. I don’t mind seeing a RH shot playing LW. Works great for Ovie.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      Yes, and I would add that the new coach needs to understand the importance of inclusiveness. Every player should have a role on the team and that role is subject to change based on the needs of the team. How can you expect a player like Lazar to raise his game when he is rotated in and out of the fourth line and averaging 7 minutes a game. You are conditioning him to see himself as that type of limited player so moving him up the line up is no longer an option. There will come a time when a coach needs to lean on a player when there are injuries.

      A perfect example of player mismanagement was used with Mangi. No PP time, no PK time, No top 6 time. The best he received was 3rd line time with 2 familiar AHL players struggling to find offense. If Mangi is used correctly, he scores his first NHL goal like Foo did, and suddenly goes from a player that can’t score at the next level to a player trending in the right direction.

      I can’t imagine going through another season like that. The only adjustments GG made was at the end of the season when he ran out of bodies… that is not coaching. A well coached system can withstand the loss of key players to injuries while a poorly coached system has not prepared its players to take on different roles.

  • freethe flames

    I was going to do my write up and give my fail/pass grade on GG but everything I was going to say has been said. The entire coaching staff gets a fail and should be looking for work soon.

  • SeethingRed

    Being a good coach is incredibly difficult. I have done it for 20 years from 6 year olds to 26 year olds and though never a professional coach I take great pride in always trying to improve. I didn’t love the job GG did this year however I have to wonder if some other factors we aren’t privy to were at play. Love him or hate him GG isn’t dumb, and he is a very good communicator…so that leads me to believe that the issue is in fact “the message” meaning systems, usage, etc which has been mentioned here adnauseum…I feel for the guy. Being a Sutter type coach has a shelf life and can be destructive to your organization long term and I think GG was consciously avoiding that style of coaching the problem is the Flames that “bring the passion” to the team are still a bit too young to have a loud voice in the locker room and because of this some nights the team barely had a pulse. When Chucky and Johnny have a few more seasons I believe their passin will drive this team night in and night out…sometimes your true leaders need to emerge…

    • JoelOttosJock

      I sort of agree, I also have coached for the last 15 years. My issue with GG is that he never adapted and used his players strengths, he was thevperfect example of insanity..look at Brouwer and Brodie usage

  • Vernon30

    I understand D. Sutter is a good coach, who has won 2 Cups and nearly a third, but there was a lot of bad blood during his reign. Would we want him back again? Also, although his 2 Cups were relatively recent, I think the game has changed a lot since then.

  • The GREAT WW

    Good news; the Oilers are keeping CHIARELLI on as GM!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It’s time the Flames made one of these sweet “CHIARELLI gets fleeced” trades……!

    WW

  • The GREAT WW

    I love this quote by Nicholson about CHIARELLI;

    “Peter has a very good relationship with other GMs in this league” -Nicholson on the GM’s ability to make moves #Oilers”

    That’s like saying: “I must be really good at poker because all the other poker players in the casino like me; they make room for me at their table when ever I walk in…”

    Classic!

    WW

  • PlayitagainSam

    I like how we’re speaking of Chiarelli and how bad he was but it doesn’t change the facts the Treleving has done some terrible deals as well and we finished with 1 more win again. So until upper management deals with Treleving we’re not in much better shape.

    • The GREAT WW

      BT hired a terrible coach, I have said that since the day he hired him.

      But he is nowhere in the same league as CHIARELLI, who has taken a team full of talent (gifted through luck and suck) and made them a lottery team again.

      BT is a coaching change away from being a playoff team….

      WW

      • Who is Alberta’s team?

        “BT is hiring a coach away from being a playoff team” ???? Lmao smoke another one Walt. You have no goal scorers, no tough gritty players, no goalies… oh and the leagues best D….. ummmm yeah.. lmao

      • BlueMoonNigel

        Flames are more than a coaching change from being a playoff team. They do not have two scoring lines. Their bottom six needs a major revamping, which very well should include the costly buyout of Brouwer. The defence could have a number of new faces in new places, including a couple of rookies playing regular minutes and Kulak playing second-pairing minutes. Then their is goaltending. As much as we want to think good and healthy Smitty will return next season and one of Gillies or Rittich will be the solid, reliable backup, nobody will be shocked if we see bad, broken down Smitty and our Stockton regulars not prime time ready. There is also a serious question of a lack of leadership and commitment to winning on this club which became embarrassingly evident in the last month of the season. This club needs more than a sold coach to be a playoff contender next season.

        • Pete80

          They’ve made the playoffs twice with worse rosters than this one. I have to agree I think they’re coaching change away from the playoffs. It doesn’t mean some roster moves wouldn’t help though

  • Who is Alberta’s team?

    Well it’s easy to tell who Alberta’s team is lol even on flamesnation you can’t help but think about the oilers 🙂 it’s such an honour. Yes I know we have mcdavid and Driasiaitl and the future looks incredibly bright. It’s ok your GM sees talent in guys like lazar who have 15 points in the last 3 seasons combined lmao!!! Gets rid of leaders like Engelland and re signs studs like stone (meanwhile surrendering draft picks for those 2 players) lmao. Classic stuff. The only GM to give away a unprotected lottery pick in the Cap era lmao!!! For a 5 d man who leads all dmen in the worst plus/minus category… at least he has like 3 goals in 3 years though lmao!! Please Ken king keep BT on board. We all know BT is keeping Gulu!!!!

  • Just.Visiting

    I had an open mind when GG was hired, since he seems like a good guy who thinks the game well in at least an academic sense.

    By November of this season, I was very much in the he has to go now camp based solely on player usage. Once you accept the basic premise that people don’t change so radically that GG turns from what we saw this year into Mike Babcock or anyone remotely close over the summer, the conclusion is inescapable. And I can only imagine how terrible it must be for GG and his family to know what is being said about him when he seems like a fundamentally decent person.

    The entire throw the stick into the stands thing looked terribly contrived to me at the time that shouldn’t have been required at all if the players fundamentally respected him, which raises questions about the degree to which he has the room.

    I also think that the whole CORSI uplift aspect is being overplayed. I believe that there has been an increasing tendency for players to create CORSI events for the sake of creating CORSI events, which significantly distorts the usefulness of the metric relative to what may have been the case previously.

  • Justthateasy

    I have a feeling NOT Ryan.
    They might want to have a look at how high priced Babcock will do in the playoffs. If he fails then I guess we are all failures eh?

  • Garry T

    Gulutzan and entire crew including Sigalet should be let go. Otherwise you just have more of the same next year and when that does not work, Treiliving is going to be out of a job too. We need a John Cooper or a really astute teaching coach. When you let this club just go out and play, they can be effective and fun to watch. I think the systems being taught are confusing and that is why you see players standing around. Do it now, hire someone as soon as possible and get those people in dissecting the Flames formats and make the necessary changes so that they are set to go right off the bat.