The Calgary Flames fired coach Glen Gulutzan and assistants Dave Cameron and Paul Jerrard on Tuesday afternoon, but the reasons for the firing go beyond failing to reach the post-season.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Calgary Flames fired coach Glen Gulutzan because they missed the playoffs. Yes, they did miss the post-season, but that was the just the final straw in a litany of setbacks the team endured in 2017-18.
Gulutzan is a systems coach and the possession numbers reflected that. The Flames dominated most games from a puck possession perspective and were Corsi darlings. But that’s only skin deep. The eye test said a lot was wrong. This Calgary Flames team didn’t really have an identity. They’re not a speed team. They don’t play a physical, heavy game. They’re not dynamic forecheckers. There wasn’t a lot of passion and intensity on the bench. And they’re mentally fragile. Here’s my take on what went wrong:
• Goalie Mike Smith was the team’s MVP through the first half of the season, yet the Flames were barely a playoff bubble team at the best of times. Smith’s superior goaltending efforts directly resulted in the Flames winning several games when they had no business getting two points, and gaining a point in many other games they surely would have lost with league-average goaltending. So it was Smith who actually masked a lot of Calgary’s flaws from the outset.
• Critics of Gulutzan point out many oddities when it came to player usage; Not using Dougie Hamilton on the first power-play unit until the final third of the season; not always taking advantage of line-matching with last change on home ice; Gulutzan once had winger Troy Brouwer take three consecutive faceoffs in 90 seconds of shorthanded play in overtime instead of putting a center in the circle after the first or second whistle.
• Calgary’s power play was dreadful virtually all season. Pass-first playmakers Johnny Gaudreau and T.J. Brodie made it easier for penalty killers to figure things out – they were going to pass. And the Flames became a perimeter movement team, the puck almost always circling the PK box. If Sean Monahan or Micheal Ferland weren’t going to score a PPG, no one was. Brouwer went the entire season (almost 100 power play minutes) without being able to deflect a shot or bang home a power play rebound. Hamilton and Matthew Tkachuk eventually got more power play time but Calgary’s efficiency rating of 16 percent was 29th in the NHL.
• Calgary’s young players struggled and stagnated in their own zone. The Flames entered the season with a vaunted D corps, rated among the top two or three in the league, with Travis Hamonic and a full-time Michael Stone added to a deep big three. But the forwards weren’t helping the cause. Monahan, Gaudreau, Ferland, Sam Bennett and others were lost causes in their own zone. Who was teaching these guys defensive responsibility?
• Gulutzan is best described as a players’ coach and rarely gets in their faces between periods and after games. He leaned heavily on his experienced veterans and let them lead the way when it came to dressing room dynamics. Nothing wrong with that, except when the experienced veterans can’t keep up and the system doesn’t work. And it wasn’t working in Calgary. The Flames started the season with Tanner Glass clogging the fourth line and Gulutzan-favorite Matt Bartkowski recycled on the blueline, even though Mark Jankowski was Calgary’s best forward in the pre-season and Brett Kulak was an up-and-comer on defense. They were demoted and scratched respectively. It wasn’t until injuries and losses started piling up that the Flames made a subtle switch to youth.
• Left-shot T.J. Brodie was classified a top pair defenseman after two exceptional seasons playing his “wrong” side next to left-shot Mark Giordano in 2013-14 and 2014-15. But Gulutzan is a stubborn advocate of the left-right pairing set-up and was unwilling to budge, even if it meant Brodie’s game suffered greatly because of it. A smooth, efficient skater adept at tight turns, Brodie does however have a hitch moving backwards. He doesn’t turn well to his left and the book is out on him. Playing the right side with Giordano on the left prior to Gulutzan, Brodie was shielded from that deficiency. Brodie defends well on his right side, largely because right hand high on stick creates a longer poke check reach on the wrong side. But under Gulutzan, Brodie was nailed to the left side next to right-shot Hamonic. And the vaunted pair never really got untracked all season, yet played more 5-on-5 time than the Giordano-Hamilton pairing. Brodie is now trade bait. His next coach should move him back to the right side.
When GM Brad Treliving dealt several high draft picks – including a first-rounder not lottery protected – to acquire Hamonic and Smith in the off-season, it was a sure sign he thought the Flames would build upon a playoff appearance last spring. But this edition did a colossal face plant instead. So this dismissal comes as no surprise.
Gulutzan’s systems design created impressive possession stats, but he could never get those numbers to add up in the win column. And that was his biggest failing.
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