This offseason, the coaching consternation was taking place on the south end of the QE2 Highway. Forgoing what most Calgary fans considered due diligence and honing in on a single target, the Flames hired a handpicked Bill Peters immediately after he opted out of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Considering the fact Peters had missed the playoffs in all four seasons in Carolina, it was a potentially fate-connecting decision by Flames GM Brad Treliving to bring his chosen bench boss to town after firing Glen Gulutzan two seasons after turfing Bob Hartley.
But it was another Alberta coach canned this week when the Oilers dumped Todd McLellan after a rocky start to the season and one playoff appearance in three years in Edmonton.
Meanwhile, in Calgary, Peters woke up on the highly discussed American Thanksgiving milestone morning with his team leading the Pacific Division.
Not that he was paying attention.
“I don’t see that. I wake up in the morning and I come to work and I don’t read the paper and I don’t really do much on the Internet,” Peters said after Wednesday night’s big win over the Winnipeg Jets — a true test of the Flames’ mettle — adding that he’ll instead be “grinding away” on game film before getting on the plane to Vegas for the next contest. “We’ll get on and Kelso (their communications director) will give us media notes. If you’re still awake by then, you’ll look at them.”
Regardless of whether or not Peters is giving the standings much consideration, the fact he has the team in such an impressive state a quarter of the way through the season is enough reason for a Canadian like Treliving to give thanks this weekend.
Standings aside, there are a number of reasons to look positively on his tenure so far.
With a new system in place (the third in four seasons for those who have tenure) the team struggled early on with giving up a high number of quality scoring chances. Combined with some really bad goaltending from Mike Smith, they were surrendering goals at inopportune times and off to an inconsistent start that culminated in a 9-1 embarrassment at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins to end their first 10 games at 5-5.
Since then, they’ve gone 8-3-1 to jump the Sharks. They’re a top four possession team (using the NHL’s SAT%) and are averaging 3.41 goals per game — good for sixth in the league behind the Penguins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning.
They’re the only team with five 20-point players and have three players in the top 20 in the scoring race.
Maybe you can chalk that up to the talent on the roster, with Elias Lindholm perfectly complementing Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the top line and Matthew Tkachuk entering a new stratosphere in the final season of his entry-level contract.
But give the coach some credit for keeping the room together through some early struggles that could easily have torn it apart. When your biggest criticism at the moment is why you’re starting Garnet Hathaway on the fourth line over Austin Czarnik, you’re doing a lot of other things right.
He delicately and patiently handled the goaltending controversy without embarrassing a goalie who could still be needed for big contributions over the next three quarters of the season, giving Smith a long leash and waiting for the right moment to hand the starting job to David Rittich.
Make no mistake, the players in the room are affected by the way you treat them and their teammates.
He stuck with TJ Brodie on the top pairing and has been rewarded with a big turnaround, with Mark Giordano’s partner now leading the team with a plus-12 rating after some awful early struggles had people wondering if a demotion would become permanent.
Peters has not been a slave to salary, sticking to the notion that James Neal should be driving play on a line of his own and/or the powerplay rather than weakening a top line that is as effective as any in the league right now with Lindholm on the right side.
And if Neal may be griping about it behind the scenes in an Uber, he’s not doing it publicly and seems to be buying into what Peters is selling while playing on a line with a couple of kids.
The coach has scratched sub-par performers and had great responses from Michael Frolik and Mark Jankowski. He has given others more important roles as rewards for hustle and determined play even when the results weren’t showing up on the scoresheet.
The best example of that is Sam Bennett, who is finally starting to live up to his potential as a high first round draft pick.
“I’m just having fun playing right now,” Bennett said after his first multi-point night Wednesday, sporting a Lanny-esque ginger moustache for Movember.
It’s easy to have fun when you’re playing with the underrated Mikael Backlund and arguably the league’s best player so far this season in Tkachuk — Bennett’s reward for a physical start to his season.
“Benny’s been good for a long time,” Peters said, pointing out his patience on a high-blocker goal, and his determination in going to the net later in the game. “He’s a real good player. He’s a competitive player. He plays the game hard; another guy who plays with emotion. And we need that, we like that. We like to be a competitive team and be hard to play against. Benny’s one of those guys.
“He’s a young guy still and he’s getting comfortable with what he brings to the table. I think he’s got a real bright future. His competitiveness has led to the opportunity to play more and he’s capitalized on that.”
There will be more difficult times ahead, but Peters’ ability to keep the team riding a massive high right now striving to be better says a lot about his ability to manage the room and keep the team’s outlook positive but not satisfied.
“I think our group’s got a lot of confidence,” Peters said. “A lot of trust in themselves and each other. I think they’re playing hard and they’re playing hard for the right reasons.
“We’re not a good enough team to afford to come off it. We’ve got to be realistic about how we evaluate ourselves and what we do moving forward. We like our start but we’re getting better. That’s the most important thing.”
They’re certainly pointed in the right direction.