The Calgary Flames are mired in a slump. They have struggled to create much of late, and were riding a hot powerplay and an even hotter goaltender to this point in the season. Both of those have now gone cold. Jacob Markstrom was not been able to keep them in games the way he did earlier in the season and the Flames’ powerplay has only converted once in the series against the Canucks. Not good.
On top of that, the team just cannot create chances through the neutral zone. As outlined in this fascinating piece by Josh Mallory, the Flames have been shut down through the neutral zone, and have not utilized their weak side or their defence in creating controlled zone entries.
The team also has not had stability in their lines. They have not found a reliable linemate for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and seem to shuffle a new linemate onto that line from game to game. Outside of Gaudreau, the Flames’ best players have not been as noticeable as they once were. Matthew Tkachuk looks a shell of his former self, the puck is not going in for Monahan, and Mark Giordano looks to have fallen prey to Father Time much faster than any expected. While there have been good news stories with the emergence of the Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin pairing, the team has not been as good on the ice as they look on paper.
Whether this is just bad luck or a systems and coaching issue, do not expect the Flames to make any changes to their coaching system. Here is why.
It is bad for organizational Culture
Since Johnny Gaudreau started playing for the Flames in 2013-14, the Flames have gone through four coaches. Since Mark Giordano started playing, they have gone through six. With the exception of the dismissal of Bill Peters, it seemed as though the go-to play for the Flames was when the team stopped performing on the ice, the GM would change the coach.
This is an incredibly poor precedent to set as it gives the players the ability to underperform on the ice in order to get away from a coach that they do not like, or one that does things that they do not agree with. The idea of a coach is he is the one setting the direction of the team on the ice. Like a captain of a ship, it is his job to ensure the ship sails effectively through both stormy seas and calm waters. It is not the job of anyone else on the team to do that, and giving the power to the players as to who the coach is detrimental to the team’s performance on the ice and culture off it.
This control teaches players that losing is acceptable as a means to bigger ends. It allows for players to play an outsized role in organizational direction instead of focusing on delivering on the ice. This bleeds into younger players who are just learning the ropes of the NHL that they have the ability to make tactical choices on the ice. A coach exists because he brings a wealth of experience, and has the ability to make on-ice decisions that players do not always see at the time. He sees the game with a different set of eyes, and it is with this view that he makes tactical decisions. Whether these decisions are right or wrong is a separate matter. What matters is that this is his job and not the players, and creating an organizational culture that allows for players to choose who the coach is is bad management.
They have done this already
When things are going wrong in an organization as big as the Flames, the GM often goes to the ownership to ask for their blessing to terminate the coach. This is a big call to make as when you relieve a coach of their duties, they are still on contract and owed money down the road. This is a sunk cost that teams have to pay, and it is expensive to pay someone who is not on your team.
A GM can pull this card, once, twice, maybe thrice, but after that a question starts to be asked of is the problem really the coach. Treliving has terminated three coaches so far in his tenure: Bob Hartley (brought in before his time), Glenn Gulutzan, and Bill Peters (for off-ice reasons). Regardless of why they were terminated, a GM does not often get a fourth kick at the coaching can. It then becomes a question of whether the GM gave the coach what he needed to succeed.
Owners care about revenue. This is a sport, but for them it is a business, and the team needs to remain profitable. Paying a coach millions of dollars a year to not work for your organization is bad financial planning.
This is a tough year, and everyone is suffering. NHL teams have lost one of their biggest revenue sources in ticket sales and gameday revenue through concession stands, jersey sales, and more. This while still having a season and needing to pay their players, staff, as well as all the bills that come from operating an NHL franchise, from transportation to utility bills. Teams are strapped for cash right now.
Owners are also especially tight. As we broke down during the off season, many of the Flames’ ownership group are invested heavily in oil and gas, and that is a sector that has been struggling for years, even before the pandemic. The Flames’ ownership does not have the same amount of money to pump into the team the way that they may have when oil was going for over $100 dollars per barrel. Do not expect owners to be opening their wallets to pay for a new coach the way that they did when bringing in new players.
Even if the Flames could change their coach easily, as if it were any other year, the fact of the matter is that organizational changes through a pandemic are very very difficult. There are few coaches available currently, with limited organizational shuffling so far this season.
Additionally, potential replacements cannot simply come to Calgary to interview for the position. There is a mandatory three day quarantine in a hotel plus receiving a negative COVID-19 test result in advance of travelling. Teams can also not go and scout potential coaches as they cannot travel and most arenas are closed to visitors. Unless a team is intimately familiar with a coach and their style, it is very unlikely that a GM, and especially a GM as cautious as Treliving, will be making the change without doing his due diligence.
If the Flames did opt for a change in coach, they would no doubt be looking for someone with a lot of NHL coaching experience. There are a few names that would fit the bill and may be available including Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant but both will cost a pretty penny. It seems unlikely to expect GM Treliving (not to mention the Flames’ ownership) to make this type of investment without doing their due diligence.
What to do now?
If I’m GM Treliving, I’m going to my coaching team and my player development team and saying we are all in the same boat here, and we need to work together to solve this problem. I’m then sitting down with them, looking at analytics, video, and every tool available in the organization to try to diagnose the issue. Is it an issue of systems, as people like Mallory have outlined? Is it a cultural issue of players not buying into the system? Something else?
From there, I am utilizing every tool in the organization’s arsenal to find a fix it? If it’s a systems issue, I’m looking to see if it’s a matter of player’s not playing the system effectively or that the system doesn’t work? If it’s the former, utilizing the limited practice time to ensure players understand and can execute the systems needed to succeed. If it’s the systems don’t work, I’m working with the coaching staff to write new ones and using every waking minute that the team is together to implement the new system.
If it’s a culture issue, I’m calling every resource in town to fix it. From sports psychologists to culture-fit experts, my phone is in my ear trying to figure out how to combat the issue. If that means empowering the coaches to bench or scratch players that are perpetuating the issue, so be it. If there needs to be a trade made, I’m calling around the NHL to get it done. Having experiences like the James Neal saga, the team is fully aware of how much of an impact culture has on performance. Ensuring the team has the right players on it and that everyone is pulling the same direction is vital to success.
Geoff Ward is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. I’d be happy to be wrong about this, as even when he was hired there were numerous questions surrounding his coaching ability. With the ongoing pandemic and the concurrent financial struggles across the NHL, it seems incredibly unlikely that the organization will be spending more money on a coach that they cannot effectively do their due diligence on. Time to sit back and hope that Geoff Ward can turn the ship around.