A New Coach Won’t Solve Everything: Lessons From Calgary

Two underachieving Canadian NHL clubs hired new coaches this week, as the Edmonton Oilers brought in Todd McLellan and the Toronto Maple Leafs recruited Mike Babcock. The announcement of these two new coaches have filled fans in each market with excitement, with the hope that finally, their teams will return to their past prominence.

Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, NHL Playoffs
Bob Hartley (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, that might not happen right away. The Calgary Flames are an excellent example of that, and a team that folks in Edmonton and Toronto should familiarize themselves with in order to learn the growing pains of a rebuilding team with a new coach.


The Calgary Flames hired Bob Hartley as their new head coach in the spring of 2012. He inherited a veteran-laden team without much cap space, without much youth and determination, and without much playoff hopes. He also had the misfortune of coming in right before the 2012-13 lock-out, so his first training camp with the Flames was incredibly short and the Flames were rather underwhelming that season. A season later, the team had a new captain (in Mark Giordano), a new leadership group, several new young players in the roster, and a renewed on-ice and off-ice identity.

Calgary’s recent resurgence was a perfect storm of factors. It had become obvious, to everybody, that the previous incarnation of the team couldn’t continue. The team’s veteran core wasn’t performing to expectations. Former coach Brent Sutter wasn’t finding ways to elevate and motivate his players. Former general manager Jay Feaster wasn’t finding many ways to augment the team’s roster with youth. The team was very much spinning its wheels.

The issues stalling the Flames’ progress were deep. They couldn’t develop young prospects into NHL scorers, so they had to go out and throw money at free agents. With so many players from so many different organizations being thrown together, it was extremely difficult for the team to foster any kind of organizational culture, and any semblance of a team identity on the ice. To be blunt, the Flames prior to Bob Hartley’s arrival were Jarome Iginla…and a bunch of guys, most of which the team had to open the purse-strings to lure in for big money. Now, veteran players know what they are and know what they aren’t, and quite often they can be stuck in their ways – particularly when they’ve been rewarded for “their ways” with big money contracts.

I don’t think it’s a big coincidence that the Flames’ on-ice success has seemingly begun after they swept out the proverbial barn, and brought in younger players without as much experience or baggage. They changed their approach after they’d changed head coaches three times (and general managers once) in relatively rapid succession.

And that brings us to…


Since they gassed Craig MacTavish from the role following the 2008-09 season, the Edmonton Oilers have brought in five different head coaches. Todd McLellan will be their sixth in that span. Their young core has not fundamentally changed, aside from losing many games. The same goes for the Maple Leafs, who gave their coaches a bit longer than the Oilers, but haven’t fundamentally changed their team, their culture, or made any seismic changes.

Once again, both teams have brought in brand-new, big-name coaches. And to be honest, the chatter around each organization is eerily similar to what we all heard when the Oilers hired Dallas Eakins and the Leafs brought in Randy Carlyle.

The good news is that these moves are unlikely to the final ones. Calgary brought in a new general manager after hiring Bob Hartley, though Hartley managed to stick around and even earn a contract extension for his performances. The Oilers have Peter Chiarelli in the GM’s chair, and the Maple Leafs are expected to hire a new GM over the summer. New general managers tend to make moves to put their finger-prints on their new clubs, so it’s likely that we’ll see some big-name players on the move from Edmonton and Toronto before the season begins.

The challenge for Edmonton and Toronto won’t be summoning the courage to make big changes; it will be making those changes intelligently, and being aware that the toughest thing to buy in the National Hockey League is a team with chemistry.