On November 15 of this season, the Calgary Flames were the worst team in the National Hockey League as measured by points percentage. On April 12, they’ll begin the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. The fact that both of those statements are entirely true has merited the Flames a lot of praise for their remarkable turnaround this season, with a lot of praise directed towards new head coach Glen Gulutzan.
Just two seasons removed from Bob Hartley winning the Jack Adams Award for his efforts behind the Flames’ bench, should Gulutzan merit consideration for coach of the year? Here’s a rundown of the team’s performance and how much of its success can be attributed to their bench boss.
The Flames were rough early on, particularly in their own zone. A lot of the challenges can be tied back to a few structural differences between Gulutzan’s team and Hartley’s old systems. Rather than hang out in a box in their own zone, similar to a penalty kill mindset, and give the outside of the zone to the opposition, Gulutzan’s teams challenge puck-carriers as they try to gain entry into the zone. That either forces turnovers at the blueline or induces the puck-carrier to dump the puck in (which often results in a turnover further back). Either way, the Flames would gain the puck. The players had a tough time adjusting to this active forecheck after four seasons of passiveness in their own end and had to break their old habits. In the first month, it led to chaos in their own zone.
Another old habit the Flames had to break was reliance on the stretch pass. Simply put, the main weapon that Hartley’s Flames had to create offense off the rush was the stretch pass. When it worked, it was beautiful. When it didn’t work, it was a recipe for turnovers in the neutral zone and odd-man rushes the other way. That was another habit the Flames had to break in order to adjust to Gulutzan’s preference for a five-man attack.
The Flames were 30th in the NHL by points percentage on November 15. On that date, Johnny Gaudreau broke a finger against Minnesota. From that point onward, the Flames seemed to adapt much more readily to Gulutzan’s systems – they didn’t really have much of a choice with Gaudreau absent – and consequently they seemed to play a much more up-tempo, offensively-minded system married with defensive structure.
Gulutzan’s early-season experimenting with lines seemed to come to an end by late November, as he solidified the top end of his lineup with the Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk line and placing Dougie Hamilton with Mark Giordano as a top pair. While those choices left his team a bit top-heavy (at least until Gaudreau returned and he placed him and Sean Monahan with Micheal Ferland in early February) having a strong line and pairing to rely upon really solidified his team’s systems play.
Not everything was solidified at once, but gradually things have fallen into place for the Flames – line balance, special teams, goaltending, their ability to play with a lead – and a lot of the credit has to go to Gulutzan for his patience and adjustments throughout the year.
Gulutzan’s Flames have come a long way this season, but that’s not to say that they’ve become an unstoppable juggernaut. They’re still a team with some flaws, some of which are likely a product of Gulutzan’s decision-making:
- The defensive pairings have relied upon shot balance – a left-shot player with a right-shot player – and that has arguably hamstrung them a bit. T.J. Brodie spent his years under Hartley playing primarily on the right side despite being a left shot (and is seemingly more comfortable on his “off” side), but he’s played on his left side with a mixture of bottom-pairing right-shot partners all season.
- The Flames remain a fairly top-heavy team with two strong lines, but Gulutzan has attempted to keep those two good lines fresh by rolling four lines regularly. On one hand, the approach makes sense, but the drop-off between the level of play between the top two lines (and top pairing) and the rest of the lineup is enough to make one wonder why he doesn’t just rely on the top end of the roster more heavily.
Overall, though, Gulutzan seems to be making the most of the roster he’s been provided with. When the Flames are successful, they’re a fast, talented young team that creates offense on the rush and is defensively sound enough to give opponents fits. A lot of the credit for their turnaround has to be given to their coach.
He might not get a ton of consideration for the Jack Adams simply because of the other great success stories throughout the league, but Gulutzan’s first year as Flames coach has been very strong.