The reaction seemed to be mostly positive when the Calgary Flames hired Glen Gulutzan as head coach in the middle of June. Gulutzan made a good first impression and addressed a number of things Flames fans had become frustrated with under Bob Hartley’s regime, namely possession and blocked shots. Now in his second job as an NHL head coach, let’s delve into what we might expect from Gulutzan, specifically in the early going.
As we’ve talked about here before, the impact of a coach can sometimes be tough to evaluate. While there are some elite coaches like Alain Vigneault and Darryl Sutter with proven track records of elevating whatever team they preside over, those guys are the exception to the norm. That said, by looking at some historical notes and a few other factors, we can start to maybe get a better idea of what the Flames might have in store. I’ll say I’m cautiously optimistic about what we might see this year under Gulutzan.
Of all the areas a coach has control of, the makeup of his team’s roster is far down the list. And yet, the group of players assembled is typically what makes a coach look good or bad. Mike Babcock wasn’t able to do much with that horrid collection of Maple Leafs last season while Mike Sullivan took over a supremely talented Penguins team and guided them to a Stanley Cup. Sure, coaches are important, but those examples paint a pretty clear picture of how much more important a properly assembled team is.
To that end, Gulutzan is going to have more to work with than Bob Hartley did the last number of years. By adding Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson between the pipes, the Flames should be significantly more competitive by default. I think enough has been written about Calgary’s goaltending situation in recent months so I won’t belabour the point any further.
The Flames are also potentially set to take a slight step forward both up front and on the back end. I wrote earlier this summer how personnel addition and subtraction hasn’t necessarily made the team better, but natural progression has, or hopefully will. Steps forward from Sean Monahan, (ahem) Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton should do the trick in that regard.
Taking everything into account, I think Gulutzan takes over a team better suited to compete than the team we saw start and finish last season. That in and of itself should make for better results this year; if Gulutzan is able to start truly turning Calgary’s negative possession train around, then the dividends could be felt even more.
While he only had one full season and a second shortened one with the Dallas Stars, we do have have some results to go one from Gulutzan’s only other NHL head coaching stop. The Stars missed the playoffs in both years Gulutzan was behind the bench while putting up middling results in the underlying categories. Below is a quick look at Dallas’s possession for those two seasons.
While those numbers aren’t going to knock your socks off, I’ll add a little context to help frame the whole picture. The Stars were an even worse possession team prior to Gulutzan taking over (48.2%, 24th overall) and saw modest improvement with what could be described as a so-so roster. We weren’t talking about Bill Peters stuff in Carolina, but there was definitely an improvement.
If Gulutzan can do the same thing with the Flames in his first year or two with the team, I think it can be looked at as a modest success. Gulutzan talked very highly of analytics and the importance of possession upon being hired, which also gives me reason for optimism. Obviously there’s no correlation from one team to the next, but seeing a bump in offensive zone time next season is a realistic expectation.
The other area I’m hoping to see improvement on is on the penalty kill. Already this summer I had a chance to profile new assistant Paul Jerrard, as he’s going to be the one directly responsible for the team’s PK. But Gulutzan will have a ton of input too, specifically knowing he handled those same responsibilities as an assistant in Vancouver the last three years. By and large, he did a pretty decent job with that task.
If Gulutzan and Jerrard can get the Flames from 30th on the penalty kill to, like, even close to league average this season, I think we can deem year one was a success. A modest jump like that would account for a significant reduction in goals against, so we’ll cross our fingers past history repeats itself here.
We’ll do the opposite when it comes to the other special team. As Mike Fail pointed out upon his hiring, Dave Cameron’s track record in running a powerplay is not stellar. Calgary’s other new assistant will be in charge of that once again, so I’m certainly feeling a little more skeptical on that front. I’m not passing judgment until I see Cameron’s poweprlay in action, but this is one area where we hope the past remains the past.
While it can’t really be tracked analytically or statistically, I have always been fascinated by the second NHL coaching opportunity. Gulutzan even admitted upon his hiring he was perhaps a little unprepared for all the highest level entailed in his two years with Dallas. So he be able to use that experience to make him a better coach this time around? A couple recent examples suggest it’s a possibility.
Let’s start with Todd Richards in Columbus, formerly of Minnesota and, more recently, Columbus. The first go around was not a good one for Richards as the Wild missed the playoffs in both of his seasons behind the bench. After spending some time as an assistant with the Blue Jackets, he was promoted to head coach midway through the 2011-2012 campaign. His second head coaching stint was a little more successful.
In the three full seasons they had under Richards the Jackets made the postseason once, narrowly missed another year, and were ravaged by injuries in his final complete campaign. Richards was dismissed seven games into this past season after the team got off to an 0-7 start, but I still think it’s fair to say he was better in stop two than one.
The same can be said about Peter DeBoer in his second kick at the can as an NHL head coach. A highly touted hire coming out of junior, DeBoer never really got a sniff of the postseason in three years with the Florida Panthers. After being fired to finish the 2010-2011 season, DeBoer caught on with the Devils and saw them get to game six of the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing out to the Kings.
DeBoer’s next couple of years weren’t anywhere near as successful, but roster turnover had a huge part to play in that. Oh, and his third stop has been pretty good, too; he just happened to oversee the San Jose Sharks in their run to the most recent Cup Final.
This is certainly not an exact science and I would never present it as such. However, I do think there’s something to the theory. Being an NHL head coach isn’t easy and it’s even more difficult the first time out. If things were to go better for Gulutzan in his second NHL stop, it would stand to reason his first kick at the can with Dallas taught him valuable lessons. If we can see results similar to what we saw from Richards and/or DeBoer, I think most Flames fans will be happy.