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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

A critical look at Glen Gulutzan’s tenure

To say Glen Gulutzan’s tenure as head coach of the Flames was an abject failure would be false. After taking a balanced look at his two seasons behind Calgary’s bench, my belief is he did more good for the team than not. I’m not saying there’s nothing to be critical of, but when looking at both sides of the coin, I think the positive outweighed the negative.

THE GOOD

Possession. I get it, shot metrics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, in this day and age, you just can’t ultimately be successful long term without also being a decent possession team. Gulutzan transformed the Flames from a team playing an antiquated brand of hockey under Bob Hartley to one far more in line with how the game needs to be played today.

A quick comparison of Hartley’s final year and Gulutzan’s first paints a good picture of how drastically things changed from one year to the next.

Season CF% Rank
2015-16 48.0 22nd
2016-17 50.5 10th

With Hartley at the helm, the Flames relied too much on things like stretch passes and blocked shots for them to win games at a sustainable level. The contrast between Hartley’s brand of hockey and what Gulutzan brought to the table is even more stark when looking at aggregate totals over the course of their tenures.

Coach Seasons CF% Rank
Bob Hartley 4 46.4 28th
Glen Gulutzan 2 52.1 4th

By no means is possession the only thing that wins games in the NHL. Winning the zone time battle is only part of the equation as teams like Calgary, Carolina, and Chicago will tell you this season. Here’s what I do know, though: teams that have shot rates hovering around 46% absolutely do not have success in the long run. Gulutzan changed the way this team played, and that was important.

The penalty kill. One of the big criticisms of Gulutzan and his staff was summed up for many by using the term “special teams”. In reality, though, that wasn’t accurate. Sure, the Flames struggled mightily this season on the powerplay (more on that later), but were actually very proficient when killing penalties.

Gulutzan and assistant coach Paul Jerrard ran Calgary’s penalty kill the last two years and both came with pretty good resumes in the craft. After some growing pains early on, the Flames settled into one of the league’s better PK units for most of the last two seasons. It was characterized by aggressive challenges at the blueline and “community clears” down low, and the results spoke loudly.

Season PK% Rank
2014-15 80.6 T-20th
2015-16 75.5 30th
2016-17 81.6 12th
2017-18 81.8 T-7th

Again, the contrast from Hartley’s final year to Gulutzan’s first season is fairly drastic. To go even further, Calgary went from an aggregate of 79.6% (27th overall) in four years under Hartley to 81.7% (10th overall) with Gulutzan.

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The 3M line. Put together early on in Gulutzan’s tenure, the trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk have done nothing but excel over the last 150 games or so. Over the last two seasons, no other line has played together more than these three guys have (1359:48) and it’s not even close. The trio of John Tavares, Josh Bailey, and Anders Lee with the Islanders is next and, at 1253:55, they’re more than 100 minutes behind.

I’d have had a hard time splitting that trio up, too. With offensive zone starts all averaging well under 50%, and with top shutdown assignments each and every night, no line has played more difficult minutes than this one has and they’ve excelled. All three of Backlund, Frolik, and Tkachuk are top end possession players over the last two seasons.

Player GP CF% Rank
Matthew Tkachuk 144 56.6 5th
Michael Frolik 152 56.2 7th
Mikael Backlund 163 55.5 16th

We’ll get into some of the frustrating elements of Gulutzan’s player usage later on, but one area he nailed it was with the 3M line. Gulutzan buried them with tough matchups and a ton of defensive responsibility because he knew he could and this was a great example of a coach slotting players in the right places to succeed.

Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. For a few different reasons, Calgary’s top two defencemen barely played with one another in Hamilton’s first year with the team. Hartley was understandably reticent to put Giordano and Hamilton together, mainly because the former was coming off a great year paired with TJ Brodie. Gulutzan pulled the trigger on this duo early in his first season, though, and the results have been outstanding.

Player GP CF% Rank
Dougie Hamilton 163 56.7 4th
Mark Giordano 163 56.0 8th

Over the last two seasons, Hamilton and Giordano are both top 10 possession players in roles where they’re asked to do it all. Out against top forwards virtually every shift, this pairing has defended well, helped the team generate shots and scoring chances, and both players have contributed a ton offensively.

Hamilton’s 30 goals over the last two years is the third highest total in the league among defencemen, trailing only San Jose’s Brent Burns (41) and Tampa’s Victor Hedman (33). Giordano is right in the same conversation with 25 goals over the same stretch, tying him for 12th. Much like the 3M Line, Gulutzan rode this pairing a ton and got a lot out of them as a result.

THE BAD

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Player usage. Gulutzan made some head scratching lineup decisions in his two years with the Flames. Certain players were given way more opportunities than they probably should have, while other players were put in situations way over their head.

Troy Brouwer’s usage is the first example that jumps to mind for many. Despite subpar results right from the word go, it took more than half of Brouwer’s first season for Gulutzan to drop him down the depth chart. And, even with his five-on-five minutes reduced, he was still getting significant powerplay time.

In his two seasons with Calgary, Brouwer has averaged 1:49 of powerplay ice time per game. That puts him significantly ahead of players like Micheal Ferland, Sam Bennett, and Michael Frolik, which is tough to wrap your head around. Brouwer’s offensive upside is low at this stage and to see him continually fed prime powerplay minutes was frustrating for many.

The second example comes on the blueline. As we just outlined above, Giordano and Hamilton made up the team’s best pairing by a country mile, and yet weren’t consistently used as such. In fact, the ice time splits between the top pairing and the duo of Travis Hamonic and Brodie were extremely similar this season.

Player EV TOI/GP
TJ Brodie 19:04
Mark Giordano 18:33
Dougie Hamilton 18:22
Travis Hamonic 17:48

Essentially, Gulutzan used his top two pairings equally, with Hamonic and Brodie seeing more difficult opposition on many nights. That just doesn’t make much sense to me. While Giordano and Hamilton thrived, Hamonic and Brodie struggled mightily together. As such, playing them as much or more than the team’s top pairing is hard to justify, specifically at five-on-five.

In-game management. This is one area Calgary upper management was most frustrated with during this coaching staff’s tenure. I never felt like Gulutzan was ruthless or tactical enough once the puck had dropped, instead relying on a balanced “roll four lines” approach. While that can work sometimes, there are also times to mix it up.

For instance, I was often left confused with Gulutzan’s decisions after an icing call. For me, seeing a third or fourth line trapped on the ice for a defensive zone faceoff means one thing: Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Instead, very often we’d see Calgary’s fourth line out to take those draws, removing an opportunity to exploit a favourable matchup.

There are absolutely times to roll four lines and three pairings. However, late in close games, we probably saw too much of players like Brouwer and Matt Stajan, at least for my liking. Shortening the bench and chasing favourable matchups can get coaches into trouble sometimes, but it can also help win games. I never felt like Gulutzan was able to strike that balance.

The powerplay. I know you’ve been waiting for this one, because Calgary’s powerplay was one of the most frustrating elements of this season. How can a team with players like Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Hamilton, and Giordano be so ineffective in this situation? And how did things swing so wildly from one year to the next?

Season PP% Rank
2016-17 20.2 T-10th
2017-18 16.0 T-28th

I know losing Kris Versteeg in late November stung the powerplay a little bit, but for one player’s subtraction to mess things up as much as it did is baffling. In reality, using Versteeg’s injury as a fallback excuse is probably burying your head in the sand; there were other things more culpable.

It took far too long for Gulutzan and assistant coach Dave Cameron to make any meaningful adjustments to a powerplay that became increasingly easier to defend. Their 1-3-1 top unit was static and often outdone by the team’s more traditional second grouping, yet the ice time numbers were completely out of step.

Furthermore, it took three quarters of this season to give Hamilton and Giordano a shot with the top unit. That would be easier to understand if the Flames were having even a modicum of success, but they weren’t. When you couple that with the continued usage of an ineffective Brouwer, you can see why this team had the league’s second worst powerplay (13.6%) from December on.

CONCLUSION

I thought Calgary should have given Gulutzan one more year behind the bench. Yes, the team underachieved big time in 2017-18, and part of that is on the coaching staff. But, Gulutzan also helped the team truly make the playoffs on merit the year before. With a couple of tweaks, I thought there was a good chance of a bounce back next year. Leading the way in that regard would have been swapping Cameron out for a coach with a better powerplay acumen.

More than anything else, Gulutzan turned the Flames into a team capable of succeeding in the modern NHL. Controlling the puck, spending more time on the attack and less time defending is how teams have success, as evidenced by the vast majority of teams still playing. That’s how Calgary played under Gultuzan and that’s why I think his time with the team yielded more good than bad.

  • McRib

    “More than anything else, Gulutzan turned the Flames into a team capable of succeeding in the modern NHL”

    Hahah, If taking low percentage (most importantly unscreened) shots from bad areas is how you succeed in the NHL then I don’t want any part of it. Our shooting percentage wasn’t an anomaly in this case, we made goalies look good all year, it wasn’t a coincidence. To GGs credit we have built a team full of players who can’t shoot the puck (except for Monahan, Hamilton and Tkachuk), but I watched the same script over and over this season to think it was just a stroke of bad luck. He’s also the worst coach I have ever seen for feel for a roster. If the fourth line is ice cold they’re on late in periods, if the third line is hot they see the bench, etc. No thanks, have fun Edmonton, Hahah. All I ever saw was a salesman whose good at talking with the media.

    • McRib

      I just hope Bill Peters isn’t the same, but so far it seems like the same. Just a “great talker” who says all the right things to the media, but then he plays the crap out of useless vets and benches quality players for taking the odd bad penalty. Brad Treliving definelty has a type where he is looking for a good “salesman”.

      • Stu Gotz

        McRib…At the risk of talking to yourself all night pls explain how you think so far it seems like Peters is the same as GG?? Have I missed something here has the season started? Has Peters coached his first game with the Flames? What do you base your comments on? All interviews that I have heard is that he is opposite of GG…Has an edge & will hold players accountable. McRib…Have you already analyzed his systems?

    • The Doctor

      Couldn’t agree more re: the kind of shots we were typically taking. Gulutzan hasn’t grasped the fact that in order to be effective in the offensive zone, you can’t telegraph what you’re doing. You need to deceive, fool and disrupt your opponents, including using speed to accomplish that.

  • freethe flames

    Here’s the thing; if you are going to compare Hartley to GG you need to look at BH last 2 years vs GG 2 years. BH last 2 years 80/70/14 1 year in the playoff got to the second round. GG 82/68/14 1 year in the playoffs. Who had more talent ? In my mind GG; better goaltending, better D, more depth and both Johnny/Monny more experienced and Tkachuk. Hands down GG had more talent and did less. This is last article I will read about GG.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    Everything that GG was good at he can do as an assistant coach. There is a serious problem when FN poster are more tactical than our coach. The most frustrating season we have endured as fans in a long time. I was embarrassed to admit the I turned off games routinely because I did not see any spark or leadership behind the bench….the players were an extension of their coach.

    • The Doctor

      That’s a really good point. I don’t recall a time ever where I had zero faith in the team watching them, but those last 20 games or so I had zero faith, and my zero faith was totally justified.

  • freethe flames

    Question for the writers: are you going to do a story on NCAA free agents and Euro Free agents. With Flames lack of draft picks it would be nice to know if there is anyone worth pursuing to fill the void?

  • T&A4Flames

    More for the bad:
    Never used a time-out when the team was losing control. He’s always save it for a challenge.
    Pre-season preparation. He’d teach right up until the last pre-season game. How about having your team prepared by letting the expected linemates and pairings create some chemistry together.
    But yes, I do acknowledge the good he did.

  • Fan the Flames

    He should have had a steady progression after taking over from Bob Hartley his first year the team went on a run and rode it into the playoffs . This year they went on a run but crumbled at the Allstar break . They were dreadful at home and the PP was aweful and GG couldn’t figure it out end of story.

  • Mickey O

    So when do you think Peters dropped the little nugget that he had an out clause in the last year of his contract with Carolina? Treliving was co-GM and hired Peters to run the 2016 World Championship team. He liked what he saw, liked his ideas on how to run a possession game, they got along great, they won a gold medal together.

    Treliving fires Hartley in 2016, and searches for a Corsi coach. He settles on Gulutzan. GG tries to implement some kind of possession system and actually succeeds to some degree. But he’s got the wrong personality to motivate, and a whole host of other negative reasons why he isn’t really an NHL head coach. In the second season with GG, Treliving was thinking about firing Gulutzan around Christmas, 2017. But then he’d have to hire another guy long term, or appoint an interim. But in reality, Treliving wants Peters all along.

    I posted that Keith Jones in the Flyers / Carolina game on April 5th, 2018 that the Flames would be “very interested” in Bill Peters if he became available. Like it was common knowledge, and a done deal. I believe it was Elliotte Friedman who officially dropped the news of Peters’ out clause. The ownership and GM changes in Carolina were merely background noise. But it did give an excuse to go through the official channels of Peters and the ‘Canes looking to move on, and keeps everyone onside with league tampering rules. Treliving fires Gulutzan and his assistants on April 17th, 2018.

    Treliving himself said that he didn’t interview anyone else for the vacant Calgary coaching job. Which gets me back to my original question. I’d bet Brad Treliving knew that Bill Peters was going to be the coach of the 2018 Calgary Flames way back in the summer of 2016…

    • Mickey O

      So I post the above, and go re-read Darren Haynes’ piece on Bill Peters. Missed a key component the first read through. The plot gets even juicier!

      “In July of that summer, about six weeks after Treliving had hired Gulutzan, Carolina GM Ron Francis announced that Peters had signed a two-year extension.”

      Didn’t realize there was a contract extension involved in the process, and it changes the timeline. There was that famous – and maybe never before written – clause that Bill Peters had written into his renewal contract: that he could opt-out of his final year.

      “Forty-eight hours ago the Bill Peters-to-the Flames rumour mill really started to sizzle when he told the Carolina Hurricanes thanks, but no thanks, and took advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract that terminated his deal with one year remaining. He had been the skipper in Raleigh the past four seasons.”

      Obviously I’m not implying anything here, obviously. But which bright spark do you figure, oh I dunno maybe, “suggested” Peters have that unique opt-out clause inserted into his contract extension? Ha! These two are absolute beauties.

      Brad Treliving totally hitched his horse to Bill Peters a couple of years ago, and vice versa. Absolutely anyone on the Flames is on the trading block if they don’t buy into what Rebar Peters is selling. Brad Treliving will go to the wall for this guy, indeed in many ways Peters is an extension of Treliving himself.

      • Off the wall

        Mickey O, it very well could be the case. When Treliving admits he only had one coach in mind, it has the making of a 48 Hours mystery dialogue.

        Whatever happened to get Peters’ to opt out and sign may be conjecture, however I also believe Treliving and Peters had some agreement in place (speculation) well before this took place.

        Btw, I’ve by watching the “Suits”
        Series on YouTube and although it’s ficticious, it reminds me that some scenarios are very feasible.

        It’s either that, or I’m fixated on legal shenanigans .😉

  • Crakupov

    Why not call it what it is. When the super goaltending returned to normal the flames were exposed. Just like they were last year, when the goalie is not standing on his head the team is extremely average. There is a good cast of players for a good first line and the rest of the team is comprised of 4th liners.

  • Just.Visiting

    I think the assumption that the improvement in a Corsi was necessarily indicative of a great increase in possession is a flawed conclusion in the case of the Flames, as I thought that several of the Flames with better Corsi scores had inflated Corsi scores as a consequence of very low probability perimeter shots and a quick flip when effecting a line change.

    I had an open mind when GG was hired, but the line/PP/PK configurations and tendency not to make required adjustments were such that it was clear to me by late November that he had to be removed and that Smith’s strong early season performance was masking other issues.

    I hope that GG reflects objectively on his time here, builds on the positives and recognizes and learns from his mistakes as he moves to his next role.

  • Flint

    Measuring success based on regular season statistics, and blindly measuring statistics is like blindly measuring calories as if they are all equal. If all your calories are coming from potato chips and candy vs real food then your caloris intake is garbage. The metric that matters are playoff games won, or uing statistics to support and argument for playoff games likely to be won, and Gulutzan won zero and likely would have won zero. To think we should have given him another year is asinine.