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.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    To be fair, I wouldn’t play Sam in OT either.

    I think the impression I get is summed up when you mentioned that something has to change and you can’t fire the team. Really, Brad’s going nowhere so the only real change available is to the coaching staff.

    A well-timed, thoughtful and fair analysis. Smooth and pro as always, Ryan.

    Keep it classy.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Disagree.
      Pike wrote a well organized and thoughtful article detailing the decision at hand about coaching in Calgary.
      Elliot Freeman also wonders in his 31 Thoughts about Gulutzan’s future. I’m really curious to see if Bill Peters replaces GG. Only his CAR team had a better CF% and worse PDO this last season than the Flames.

  • Rockmorton65

    While I’m against it, there are some who think GG will get until Christmas to turn things around. The key for me is Cameron. If we had league average special teams, I think we are a playoff team. Not a contender, for sure, but we would have made the dance. If Cameron is still here at the start of the season, I will lose a ton of respect for the Flames management.

  • 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!!!!

  • buts

    Great article Ryan…..you could have wrote the same article in December. How about an article on why GG is still employed. Is BT that blind? My answer to that is his ego is in the way. Which brings me to think that we should be scared of an ego that can’t admit to making a mistake. BT is a good contract negotiator but can he access coach’s, talent? I’m thinking he’s not the one to lead us to a cup.

    • Rockmorton65

      That’s a lot of assuming in one paragraph.

      “BT has a huge ego”
      “BT won’t admit a mistake”
      Therefore, BT is a bad GM.

      I have faith he will make the necessary changes. Just not in a knee jerk reaction kind of way. A new coaching staff doesn’t need to be in place until training camp, or about 5 months from now. Just because he’s not appeasing the fans right away doesn’t make him a bad GM.

      For the record, I DO believe this is BT’s most important summer as a GM. The clock has officially started running

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • Big Ell

    As head coach, GG has 146 Wins and 125 losses with 4 playoff losses in four years. He is below mediocre, he is experienced and has had a shot, 1 playoffs in 4 years is all that needs to be said.

  • Derzie

    This post is the equivalent to the NHL All Star game: something to inform casual fans as to what’s happening. Well written but stating the obvious. I interpret ‘might’ in the headline as “Brad may need to go too if he thinks these coaches should stay”

  • Iggyfan2001

    I’ve been hearing a lot of Gulutzan does or doesn’t deserve to get fired talk or “Is Gulutzan a good Coach?” talk lately. All of that is less relevant than this question: “Are there coaches available that are willing to coach the flames that make this team better than with Gulutzan coaching them?” To me, the answer is invariably yes. Give me Darryl Sutter or Dave Tippett.

    • BringtheFire 2.0

      There was a mailbag that dealt with Tippett maybe not being the best. Also, I don’t think the coach that FN commenters want is available to Calgary. Because of money and organizational reputation, I can see coaches not wanting to come here.

      • Iggyfan2001

        yeah maybe on the Tippett front. But I feel with the talent on the roster, the job is tantalizing enough that a lot of coaches would want to come in. And I think Darryl would jump on his horse in viking and ride all the way down here for a chance to coach the flames. Trotz is the other guy I’d love the flames to look at if he does lose his job in DC.

  • Korcan

    GG’s biggest problem appeared to me to be a general lack of fear/respect from the players (nice-guy syndrome?). He seemed unable to get them to respond. For example, you would never have seen Daryl Sutter throw his stick into the stands trying to motivate the boys, because he didn’t need to; had he ever done so, we would have have witnessed 25 skaters each standing in their own little yellow puddle on the ice — that’s a General. GG’s a Second Lieutenant at best.