A look at the Calgary Flames’ performance under Geoff Ward

Geoff Ward has had a long and eventful career as a coach. With stops in the CHL, ECHL, 2nd Bundesliga (now the DEL2), DEL, and AHL, he finally got his chance in the NHL as an assistant with the Boston Bruins in 2007.

He stuck with the Bruins until 2015, and in that time he was responsible for the power play. His next NHL opportunity came with the Devils, also as an assistant, in 2015. When he came to Calgary a few years later, he was enticed away from the Devils with the promise of a promotion, earning the title of associate coach.

Then, in just his second season with the team, head coach Bill Peters resigned in disgrace after news of his racism and abusive treatment of players broke. Ward was thrust into the head coaching job, filling in with the interim tag until after the playoffs, at which point he was officially given the title of head coach.

Performance so far

In the regular season, the Flames went 25-15-3 under Ward. They followed that up with a 3-1 record in the play-in round and a 2-4 record in the first round against Dallas. In total, a 30-20-3 record for Ward as the boss, good for a 0.566 win percentage.

Regular Season

In February, we took a look at how Ward had been performing as interim coach, and found that while the Flames were converting more of their chances under Ward, the underlying numbers suggested the scoring may not be sustainable.

Now with the whole season completed, the same could be said. The team put up middling possession and chance-creation stats throughout Ward’s time in charge, but continued to convert on their chances and receive strong goaltending.

Point %CF%xGF%GF%SH%SV%
0.616 (8)49.4 (17)50.9 (16)51.8 (12)8.7 (10)92.3 (9)

All stats are 5v5, score-and-venue adjusted, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick. The Flames’ league rank in each category are shown in brackets next to the numbers for context.

Under Ward, the team was essentially average in terms of expected results and possession, two of the better indicators of sustainable success. On the other hand, the team’s shooting percentage and save percentage were both in the league’s top ten.

The question then is, were Ward’s strong results due to a hot streak from the forwards combined with strong goaltending, or were his results the result of the changes he implemented as coach? There is no denying the teams record improved under Ward, but could the improvement more accurately be attributed to a simple regression to the mean after a slow start?

Perhaps part of the reasoning came down to his willingness to make significant changes to the makeup of the roster. Aside from the usual lineup tinkering all coaches do, Ward made at least one eyebrow-raising lineup decision last season when he shifted Mikael Backlund to the wing.

For what felt like an eternity, Backlund struggled to adapt to his new role on the right side of the Sean Monahan/Johnny Gaudreau duo. Eventually he approached Ward about switching back, and the experiment ended.

Moving the team’s most reliable centre away from his natural position was a surprising and honestly confusing decision to most observers. Upon returning to centre ice, Backlund took off, playing some of the best hockey of his career to finish the season. However, in the playoffs Ward found more success implementing positional changes.

Playoffs

With a long break between the regular season and the playoffs and the opportunity to hold a training camp, there is no doubt that the Flames played according to Ward’s system in the return to play. With no excuse for on-the-fly implementation of the system, the playoffs are likely the best representation of what we can expect from Ward’s Flames.

Win %CF%xGF%GF%SH%SV%
0.50047.80 (17)48.26 (14)45.68 (12)6.61 (12)0.927 (11)

Remember, these ranks are out of only the 24 teams that made the play-in round. Yikes! Without the benefit of playing teams from the bottom of the standings, the underlying numbers take a hit. At the same time, the team’s shooting percentage regressed. Luckily for the Flames, Cam Talbot stood on his head for most of the playoffs.

When Talbot faltered, Ward was not afraid to throw David Rittich to the wolves, inserting him into a tough position in game six against Dallas. The ill-advised and seemingly impulsive idea to put in a player who had not seen real game action in six months quickly backfired and Talbot returned to the net after Rittich allowed three goals on nine shots.

Regardless of the underwhelming underlying numbers and strange treatment of his goalies, Ward’s team did show promise in the playoffs. Some of this promise came from Sam Bennett‘s eight points, scored after being shifted to centre from the wing by Ward.

Although Bennett’s change was unlike the Backlund experiment in that it paid dividends immediately, it was also like the Backlund experiment in one way. Both experiments concluded with the player making the call. Bennett said he liked being back at centre after the playoffs, and Ward recently confirmed he would stay there.

With the team also planning to move Elias Lindholm to centre, that gives the team two more centres than last year. The only regular roster centre the team lost was Mark Jankowski, meaning the lineup will have a new look next year, especially up the middle. While we have already taken a look at what a reorganized Flames forward group could look like, it’s up to the coach to make those decisions, and put their stamp on the team.

Time to Make His Mark

Looking at Ward’s body of work so far and his most notable decisions in that time, it is clear that Ward is not afraid to make substantial changes if he thinks they could improve the team. With the added security of the head coaching title and a new contract signed, he will definitely continue to put his mark on the team.

What that mark may be remains to be seen, but his hand will likely first be tipped with his decisions down the middle. Because team stats like xGF% and CF% are the result of the players and the coach together, improvement or deterioration in that regard next season can’t be entirely attributed to him.

His true mark will be made via player deployments, as the team shifts to a top-six more focused on Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk and somewhat less so on Monahan and Gaudreau. If Lindholm establishes himself as the team’s top centre, the coach will be faced with some tough decisions throughout the roster, and the decisions he makes will shape the identity of the team.

Considering his evident willingness to make unconventional decisions, it could be a very interesting season ahead for the Flames.

Photo courtesy: Candice Ward/USA Today Sports

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