20Geoff Ward
Photo Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

FlamesNation coaching evaluation: the assistants

The Calgary Flames debuted two brand-new faces behind their bench in 2018-19 as supports for new head coach Bill Peters. They primarily used three coaches to assist Peters with various aspects of the game.

Geoff Ward

Ward came to the Flames in the off-season, hired away from the Boston Bruins by way of a promotion to associate coach. Ward’s primary responsibilities were managing the forwards, the power play, and assisting Peters with in-game adjustments (with the assistance of Martin Gelinas, the team’s “eye in the sky”).

The Flames ran with four pretty consistent forward tandems:

  • Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan – Elias Lindholm
  • Matthew Tkachuk – Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik
  • Sam Bennett – Mark Jankowski – James Neal
  • Andrew Mangiapane – Derek Ryan – Garnet Hathaway

The successes of the forward groupings were the strong first two-thirds of the season for the top line, especially their offensive outbursts, and the emergence of the fourth line as a consistent offensive contributor. The coaching staff also wasn’t loathe to make in-game line shuffles or shorten the bench, particularly in situations where lines were struggling or the team was trailing.

On the negative side of the ledger, the coaching staff constantly juggled spots for Neal, Frolik and Austin Czarnik, and seemed to settle in on Frolik reuniting with the 3M Line in the second half of the season fairly begrudgingly after Czarnik failed to move the needle for Peters. Neal never really seemed to get going. While the top line’s late season struggles likely were partially due to their percentages regressing – they simply weren’t all going to have 100 point seasons – the coaching staff couldn’t seem to figure out how to make adjustments to change up their energy or get a bit more out of them in the playoffs.

The top power play unit was deadly all season (aside from a late lull) and was consistently comprised of Gaudreau, Lindholm, Monahan, Tkachuk and Mark Giordano. The second unit infamously started off cold and was subject to constant adjustments – often trying to get Neal some playing time – but seemed to get some energy late in the season when it was comprised of Backlund, Bennett, Ryan, TJ Brodie and Rasmus Andersson. Putting Andersson on that unit took awhile, but could be a big step in the young defender’s development as an offensive presence.

While the Flames didn’t have a perfect season, a lot of credit has to go to Ward for doing his best to give the group a chance to succeed. Aside from the team’s struggles to figure out Neal, for the most part they didn’t muck around with the lineup unless things weren’t working and they weren’t too stubborn to tinker if units were struggling – both were a positive change from Glen Gulutzan’s last season behind the bench.

Ryan Huska

Promoted from the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat following last season and put in charge of the defense corps and the penalty kill, Huska had a pretty good first campaign as an NHL assistant coach. Heck, one of his players – veteran defender Mark Giordano – will probably win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top blueliner.

After a season where the defensive pairings were, to be blunt, not good, the Flames got a ton out of their back-end group in 2018-19. The biggest endorsement for Huska’s work is this: the Flames were without veterans Travis Hamonic and Michael Stone for big chunks of the season and were forced to rely on a rookie defensive pairing featuring two of Andersson, Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington for the entire season. Not only did using three greenhorns not hurt them, but the addition of their youthful exuberance probably helped the Flames win a bunch of games. Andersson, in particular, had a tremendous season.

The penalty kill was a bit of a mixed bag, though the pressure-based system they used was pretty effective at times. On one hand, the Flames ended up getting lot out of Jankowski, Ryan and Hathaway by utilizing them as penalty killers, and the team collectively led the NHL in shorthanded goals. On the other hand, the team seemed to de-emphasize Backlund and Frolik – two strong PK performers – during the season. Some of that was likely an attempt to balance out ice time a bit and keep them fresh down the stretch for their even strength shutdown roles, but it likely weakened the team’s PK performance overall.

Huska’s anticipated strength as an assistant coach was thought to be his familiarity with the team’s younger players, as he had most of them in Stockton. Well, the team got quite a bit out of its young defenders (and Mangiapane, Jankowski and Hathaway) so utilizing Huska seemed to have worked. The challenge going forward will be to figure out a way to balance out ice time between the team’s key players while putting the best-suited pieces on the ice for the PK.

Jordan Sigalet

When Mike Smith struggled early in the season, Peters was asked during a media scrum what his philosophy was about his goaltenders. He quipped to us that he didn’t have a philosophy, he had a goalie coach. Sigalet was heavily relied upon this past season to effectively be a goalie whisperer and figure out which of the team’s two netminders – Smith and David Rittich – should get a run of starts.

Given that Rittich was injured for the final third of the season, it’s probably only fair to judge Sigalet’s goalie rotating on the two thirds of the campaign where they had two goalies to choose from. On that metric, you can argue he had a pretty effective year. When Smith was struggling early on, the Flames weren’t afraid to give several games to Rittich. When Smith got his mojo back, they weren’t terrified to keep rotating both netminders in to keep them fresh.

If you want to criticize the goaltender utilization, it’s probably fair to note that the team used both Smith and Rittich on back-to-back nights when the other was hurt and Jon Gillies was dressing as the back-up. It seems reflective of a lack of confidence in Gillies as a third-stringer, which is either a coaching fault or a development fault (or both). Getting Gillies some NHL playing time could’ve been useful for aiding his development or gauging how he was progressing in his development.

The other main criticism of the tandem’s performance regards their puck-handling. Smith’s adventures outside of his crease caused a lot of fan anxiety this season – you could audibly hear fans gasp from the press box whenever he ventured out to play the puck – and there seemed to be a push to get Rittich to do the same so that the team would get consistent puck-handling from their goalies – he infamously got burnt when he played the puck right to San Jose’s Brent Burns and was yanked from the game as a consequence. It’s unclear whose idea this was, but the results were uneven (at best) and likely cost the team points at times in the season. Considering how young and malleable Rittich is as a North American goaltender, it seems like keeping him in his crease would be best for everybody going forward.

Based on how things went for the most part, though, it seems fair to give Sigalet the benefit of the doubt regarding how the team used Rittich and Smith when they were both healthy. The team got consistently solid goaltending throughout the year and seemed to get as much as they could out of their tandem.

2018-19 player evaluations

#4 Rasmus Andersson | #5 Mark Giordano | #7 TJ Brodie | #8 Juuso Valimaki | #10 Derek Ryan | #11 Mikael Backlund | #13 Johnny Gaudreau | #18 James Neal | #19 Matthew Tkachuk | #21 Garnet Hathaway | #23 Sean Monahan | #24 Travis Hamonic | #27 Austin Czarnik | #28 Elias Lindholm | #33 David Rittich | #41 Mike Smith | #55 Noah Hanifin | #58 Oliver Kylington | #67 Michael Frolik | #77 Mark Jankowski | #88 Andrew Mangiapane | #93 Sam Bennett | Complementary Players | Bill Peters

  • Stu Gotz

    In my view this coaching staff is the most credible we have had in sometime based on the season performance. However being out coached in the playoffs carries accountability. The GM needs to determine the impact of this vs the inability of the Flames top players not performing at a critical time. Lessons learned from a coaching perspective and personnel changes going forward are in order.

    • cjc

      Need to remember, it was Peters’ and Huska’s first postseason waltz at the NHL level. Not that I put much in that.

      Hockey is a game of who gets hot at the right time. Unfortunately for Calgary, they went cold at the exact wrong time. They didn’t have to fight for anything after the all-star break – they were in first place and their schedule was described as “pillow soft” – and I think it showed. Meanwhile Colorado had been playing well for a good stretch. St. Louis clawed back from the basement with a coaching change and hot goalie, and now they find themselves in the SCF.

      Therefore, Calgary needs to work on consistency in effort throughout the season. And that is definitely on the coaches.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        You are contradicting yourself: “Hockey is a game of who gets hot at the right time” and “Calgary needs to work on consistency in effort throughout the season.”

        • BlueMoonNigel

          It would be great if the Flames could go wire to wire, but it is unrealistic. How many teams have finished first overall in the regular season and then won the cup?

          After the big hurt of this playoffs, I am sure that most Flame fans would say yes to just eking into the playoffs followed by a long playoff run versus what the witnessed in 2018-19 with great hockey for most of the regular season and a playoff bomb.

          • HOCKEY83

            8 times it has happened. Only 17 teams have won it since it’s inception 33 years ago.
            Just eeking in means losing half the games in the regular season…Flames fans have seen that way too many years in a row. Personally, I’d rather not have to suffer through 82 mediocre games. I think it’s better to have a great season and then hope for the best in the playoffs.

        • cjc

          Yeah I admit, that was a bit of a disjointed thesis. My thought was that in order to have the best chance of taking advantage of players/lines getting hot, you need team consistency. St. Louis was never as bad as their record looked (they had a terrible coach and goalie), so once they got a hot goalie they could take advantage. The MacKinnon/Rantanen/Landeskog combo had been good all season, without any noticeable cold stretches. They were able to take advantage of the Gaudreau/Monahan/Lindholm line being cold.

          • BlueMoonNigel

            The Blues were as bad as their record when the Flames zoomed them in St. Louis in December. For goshsakes, they had Chris Butler taking a regular turn on defence! But yes, as you said, the Blues were badly underperforming at that time under Mickey Yeo.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        What the Flames need to do is fire Peters and hire Mickey Yeo. When Yeo runs the club into the ground by mid-season, fire him and the guy they hire will inspire the Flames to turnaround their season and go for a spirited playoff run . It happened in Minnesota and St. Louis after Yeo was canned, so why not here? I say yes to the Yeo bounce.

  • freethe flames

    Ward’s PP disappointed me. Part of the problem of course was the second PP unit little imagination as to changing it up b/c of different personal. Lack of trying different personal. One of the problems I guess was always trying to see if the second PP could get Neal going. It is BT job this summer to add at least 1 forward who can add to second PP and for Ward to work better with what he has.

  • FlamesFanOtherCity

    I fail to see anything the goalie coach did or has done since coming to the Flames organization. Too many failed prospects. Maybe they weren’t or aren’t the best prospects to begin with, but the track record is terrible. With Rittich, he was already a developed goalie, who came into the NHL and got worse as either season went on. Gets Rittich to start playing the puck more. Bad results. Smith struggling in nets, so eventually go to Rittich. Brilliant. Rittich goes on a run, time to get Smith back in nets. Brilliant.

    How many more goalie prospects do we want to bring to the NHL and destroy under Sigalet. The results do not warrant being kept on.

    • Cheeky

      Spot on! Never been a fan of Sigalet and his deciding who to play is a prime example. Smith was run into ground early the year before and his M.O. of having goalies play deep and on their knees cost us goals against. He never took our goalies’ (prospects too) strengths and utilized them, but tried to adjust all to a certain system. Smith was great in playoffs because he reset back to his better style (more aggressive and less deep). Prospects come to die here, time to try a new goalie coach…

  • Stockton's Finest

    And I would give the coaching staff in Stockton a C- or D+. No consistency with line up, line changes, and not naming a captain all are strikes against him. He did have to continue to juggle as players were injured or called up, but he never really adapted.

    Yes, a new avatar.

  • freethe flames

    I was thinking about the rumour that had Zucker coming to Calgary and was wondering if the $5.5m that he is being paid would not be better spent elsewhere; say some portion of it for Ferland or a Connlloy or a Donskoi?

      • The Red Knight

        DOES Connolly hit and play hard ! Because if he’s another soft wimp no thx .ill take an injured Ferlund back in a second over anymore fuzzy wuzzies !

        • freethe flames

          Have you watched the Cap’s at all the last two seasons? If not; they won a Stanley cup last season and one of the major reasons is that they play the type of hockey you are talking about and Connolly was a significant contributor in that category.