When the Flames struggled through a middling 2007-08 season and lost to San Jose in the first round, I wrote that GM Darryl Sutter should fire coach Mike Keenan.
It was based on a number of reasons. With Keenan behind the bench, the Flames didn’t show any improvement during the season (two fewer points than the Flames had under Jim Playfair the year before) and couldn’t coach his troops to a higher standard in the playoffs.
It also bothered me that Keenan somehow brought out the worst in skilled forwards Alex Tanguay (a career point-per-game performer reduced to 18 goals and 58 points in 78 games) and Kristian Huselius (from 34 goals and 77 points in 2006-07 to 25 goals and 66 points.) They became passive, vacant sweater-holders by the playoffs.
Presumably, they weren’t Keenan-type players. That’s fine if Keenan instead found other forms of secondary scoring. But he had no confidence in Dustin Boyd or David Moss and their development stagnated.
What’s the point, I wrote, keeping Keenan and have him alienate more players?
I’m ready and willing to eat my words based on what I’ve seen this season. Sutter deserves a ton of credit bringing in Mike Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and Mark Giordano. But it’s Keenan who’s responsible for working them into ideally suited roles and being wise enough to mix them up to create freshness and hunger.
Keenan has also reportedly mellowed in his handling of players to a certain extent, which will surely extend his shelf life as a coach. The growth and maturation of youngsters Moss, Boyd, Eric Nystrom and Adam Pardy can also be linked to Keenan being bold enough to issue faith and confidence before it was won.
I take back what I said about Keenan last spring. But I’d like to see more before I’m totally convinced.
I want to see how Keenan gets the Flames out of this February funk where they’ve lost four straight games.
I want to see how he lights a fire under Daymond Langkow and how he’ll overcome Miikka Kiprusoff being tired and over-worked by the post-season.
And I want to see Keenan out-coach his rivals in the playoffs.
This column also appears in the Calgary Metro Newspaper.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.