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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.

  • Burnward

    Buying the Corsi kool-aid.

    Sure, they fired more shots…but if 25% of them are throwaways hoping for luck, you’ll never get that luck.

    Let’s also compare rosters to what Bob had. This team is probably 30% better on the whole and got no results.

    Heart, guts, drive, desire. All absent the last two seasons. This is what a coach brings. GG failed here.

    Maybe a smart hockey guy. But results speak for themselves.

    • Hockeysense9393

      See that goal by DeBrusk the other night? That’s the difference right there. Normally a Flame may take a shot while skating towards the back of the net. DeBrusk put every effort into angling towards the net and taking the hit to have a high level scoring chance. Basically the difference right there.

    • cunning_linguist

      People keep using this argument, because they don’t put in the effort to understand the numbers. Our team actually did great in xGF and Scoring Chance differential. People want to throw stones at possession metrics as if it’s Corsi in a vaccuum and nothing else, but there are other metrics that say we did well and just didn’t have finish.

      • Burnward

        Give me that article then and I’ll look at it.

        They mailed in the last 20 games. Didn’t play with joy or passion. Personnel choices were insanity.

        They failed. And did so while looking miserable.

      • oilcanboyd

        Good teams have good possession metrics – I will buy that. But you can’t make a good team by playing in a way to pump up the metrics. GG had the team playing like zombies, dead – no passion and no give a damn.

  • Mickey O

    “To say Glen Gulutzan’s tenure as head coach of the Flames was an abject failure would be false.”

    Great, just great. It took me half an hour for my eyeballs to become unglued from the back of my head after spinning around multiple times.

    I’ll admit I haven’t read the rest of the article yet – but it really should come with some kind of public service announcement that it will be hazardous to your health.

  • buts

    If you call flipping the puck on net, constantly playing guys in the wrong situations, not knowing how to handle the bench i.e. timeouts, maybe yelling at the ref, motivating/emotion, special teams and playing with no identity good then so be it Pat. I personally believe he was the worst coach I’ve seen in Calgary since the flames arrived.

      • Mickey O

        Sometimes you don’t even need to call a timeout when you need to settle things down. One of the players, especially the goalie, has an equipment failure and needs to come to the bench. Babcock pulls that stunt every once in a while. Giving up 2 or more quick goals was comically bad last year, and cost the team a lot of points.

        • The Doctor

          Babcock outright cheats with that stuff. He was reallly pushing the envelope on that in the Boston series after icings. Refs should call more delay of game penalties on that krap.

          • Cfan in Van

            To that point, he knows exactly what he can get away with, and that makes a great coach. You use advantage you can get. Just like players that toe the perfect line with rough or aggravating playing styles. Gully needed to know where to find advantages, and he was pretty blind to that type of thing.

  • Squishin

    Yeah sorry, this article doesn’t cut it. You have to account for all of the negatives, not just the obvious player usage/powerplay ones. The Flames were consistently outworked by most of the teams they played. Instead of finishing a check, they’d peel back. Instead of backchecking hard, they’d head off for a change. Instead of skating hard and fast, they’d take a dumb stick penalty. The blame for this lies on both the coach and the players. However, when the players slack off, it’s the coach’s job to let them know and cut their ice time if necessary. Gulutzan failed here. In the first half of the season, the Flames were frequently not prepared to start the game, and almost always played an incomplete game, never a full 60. This is again on the coach.

    Possession has its part to play, but it CANNOT be the be-all, end-all of success. A positive corsi team is not necessarily a good team. The Flames were not a good team for the past two years. The first year of Gulutzan’s tenure, they made the playoffs because Johnson saved the season in November/December, then Elliott decided to go into beastmode in February/March. Lacking a similar freak accident this year, the team didn’t make the playoffs. The goalie can’t carry the team all the time. Sometimes, you have to actually play defence properly in order to win a game. This comes down to coaching again – the system frankly didn’t work in the D-zone.

    • rusty_shakleforde

      Really great points here. Especially the overwork critique. I mean, say what you will, but at least with Hartley we had conditioning. I expect ole Rebar to have sething to say about that.

      And the article here states that we were aggressive on the penalty kill. Not what I saw. When we played that way, we kicked ass, when we didn’t, we were meh.

      • The Doctor

        Yeah I thought we were inconsistent on the PK. Yes sometimes we looked good, other times we blew. Not the disaster that our power play was, so we have that.

  • RKD

    No I disagree I didn’t see any change in fact I felt despite some players having career years the team was mentally fragile, not ready to start games, blowing leads, shutout multiple times, Gully never developed an identity and the special teams were abysmal. Another year with him would not have made any difference. Based on the players comments sounds like Gully didn’t have a system/the players had no clue what the system was. His only saving grace were his tirades but that wore out quickly. He was too stubborn keeping Brouwer on the pp, refusing to break up Hamonic-Brodie. If he doesn’t adapt he won’t find another NHL gig.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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?

  • Gulutzan would’ve gotten one more to year and Burke would probably still be on as president of hockey ops if the Flames had won between 6 to 9 more games in 2017-18 to finish in the 96 to 102 point range and make the playoffs. The Flames lost seven games by 1 goal in regulation time: Oct 19, 27; Dec 14, 22, 29; Feb 9 and April 5. They got a loser point but missed out on ten points by losing in overtime or the shootout on Nov 22; Dec 6, 12, 28; Jan 20, 22, 24, 25; Feb 19, and March 5. This is the difference between making or missing the playoffs. The margin of error is small but at least Bill Peters has a decent team to work with, pending on what happens in the offseason of course.

    • IUsedToHaveAName

      So 17 one goal losses? Every time I see something like this I immediately think of the power play. Calgary scored 43 goals on 269 power play opportunities for 16% power play percentage last season. League average was 20.1% on the power play. If on 269 opportunities (tied with Chicago for 5th most penalties drawn), Calgary scored at the league average power play conversion they would have scored 54 goals on the power play tying them for 10th in PP scoring with Philly and Jersey, both playoff teams.

      That’s eleven extra goals just from the power play. If we accept that every 6 goals in differential is equal to 1 win then the power play just got the Flames 4 extra points just by being average. Calgary finished at -30 in goal differential. The hypothetical power play success gets them up to -19. Through even strength play if they can climb to an even goal differential they get an additional 6 points for a 94 point finish.

      An even goal differential helped out by a league average power play has them finishing 1 point out of the playoffs. If one of these things is slightly above average, say if they finished with 2 more power play goals and 4 more even strength goals they could have potentially finished with 96 points, which would have had them take Colorado’s wild card spot.

      • Hockeysense9393

        Good post showing what statistics do say. There was an element of bad luck to go with the season, so if just having a little more push and tenacity (creating more luck) should put them to at least average in certain categories…which would look pretty good. Then the point of believing in yourselves and having confidence in your coach, could put you over the top. Example…Las Vegas.

  • BendingCorners

    Every coach has favorite players whose usage mystifies the sane. But good coaches understand that every game matters and push their players to be ready for every game, from the opening whistle. Too often the Flames showed up five or ten minutes late or were content to play for a tie, instead of pushing for the win. Since players get ice time when they play the way the coach wants them to, the blame for the losing attitude was correctly assigned and the offending parties were axed.
    Sorry Pat, you’re way off on this one.

  • MajorTom

    Gultuzan is gone…. period… Why are we beating a dead horse… How about some talking about the draft and possible trade. Gultuzan is gone end of story time to move forward..
    Woulda Coulda but Didn’t

      • cjc

        Personally I think the Peters for Gulutzan substitution is just swapping deck chairs… unless Treliving can fix the problems with his roster Peters is unlikely to have much more success. Peters is also likely to make his own lineup choices that will drive the fan base mad.

        • Hockeysense9393

          Not necessarily?? Peters turned one of the youngest D cores into a fast moving responsible set up. Think of what he could do with some vets. He has had excellent success setting up lines in short amount of time frames (world chanpionships). He can recognize line setups a lot better then GG and also showed putting younger players in better positions to succeed. I believe he may be harder on more veteran players, but rightly so. He also has more patience with younger players and allowing them to learn by making mistakes. Other then pushing the play metrics and the like…I don’t think his mentality is anything like GG, especially when it comes to personnel deployment.

        • oilcanboyd

          A power play goal or three at key times throughout the season and a better penalty kill in the first half would have gotten us in the playoffs. 3M will rise again! Bennett/Janko/Ferland better..Nothing but the best for Johnny and Mony!

          • Raffydog

            Give it up with the 3m line. Tkachuk deserves better than having to drag around Backlund and Frolik for another year. Give the kid some quality linemates, and watch him soar.

        • Mickey O

          Any coach that takes a team 11 points out to the playoffs is going to get consideration for the Jack Adams award. It is an easy narrative to say that GG and BP are similar coaches because of high Corsi numbers and Peters never made the playoffs with the Hurricanes. Treliving hired the right guy…Peters is going to get votes for Coach of the Year.

  • CalgaryBornandRaised

    It’s all about optics on this one, Hartley had taken the Flames as far as he could, and no one can deny the way his system worked was not sustainable for success long term.

    I fully admit that when Gully came in I was skeptical, but he won me over the first year, as he vastly improved the Flames in many aspects., including all the advanced stats and the eye test, I watched them compete in his first year with some of the leagues best teams and not look out of place.

    The logical step for the Flames was to start ascending to regular playoff participant, and when this year happened, the way it did with the boneheaded personnel decisions and horrible powerplay, not to mention mentally caving for the last month and bit, was all on Gully and the Flames are back to where they were before Hartley got fired.

    Regression is not a good thing, no if the Flames had made the playoffs and either won a round or went to a Game 7 in Round 1, Gully might still be here, but I think that last season he did more harm to the Flames than even maybe Hartley did.

    Troy Brouwer should not be getting powerplay time over Tkachuk or Hamilton ever, and no way a team with Gaudreau, Monahan and Hamilton should have a powerplay ranked 28th

    The Flames have the talent to compete regularly now for a home playoff spot, we were there briefly this year before it all fell apart, and for that Gully definitely made the Flames worse off

    • Raffydog

      Do they though? They have 3 really good players, then a real big drop off after that. Treliving has hoarded the largest collection of 4th line castoffs in the history of the league. The greatest coach in the world couldn’t make this a playoff team. Those of you thinking a coaching change is going to solve all the problems are in for a rude awakening come next season.