Calgary Flames

Waiting in the wings: Breaking down internal coaching options for the Calgary Flames

After taking three of a possible four points against the league leading Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Flames were lambasted by the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators 6-1. They bounced back with a 6-3 victory on Saturday afternoon, but with three blowout losses over a span of just nine days, including a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers and a 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, one win against the lowly Senators isn’t changing any off the narratives surrounding this team.

Despite the positive signs in the last game, the Flames need a huge push to get back into the playoff race, and the questions surrounding the coaching staff are not going away any time soon. Most fans and media members are calling for a change. Both in terms of tactics and in terms of buy-in, the Flames need something, anything, to break out of this slump. This team looks listless on the ice and it appears from the outside that the coach has lost control of the dressing room. With the quarantine restrictions making trading hard, changing the coach is probably the path of least resistance for this team to at least try to right the ship this season.

However, as we have written about previously, there is little chance that the Flames make a major coaching move. There likely is not room in the budget to pay for a coach like Gerard Gallant or Bruce Boudreau, the two big-name coaches on the market. On top of that, Gallant is currently in PEI and Boudreau is in Hershey, Pennsylvania where he has bought a USHL franchise. It would be incredibly difficult for either guy to come to Calgary to interview without arousing an immense media storm.

What the Flames could do, however, is make an internal move and promote one of their assistant coaches to be the new head coach. Here are the options right now:

Ryan Huska

Huska is probably the most likely option in the wings. He was the Head Coach of the Flames’ AHL team from 2014-15 to 2018-19, which gave him experience coaching guys like Andrew Mangiapane, Rasmus Andersson and more. Prior to this, Huska was the Head Coach of the Kelowna Rockets for seven seasons, and the Assistant for five prior to that. He (very briefly) coached Dillon Dube in Kelowna.

Before getting into coaching, Huska was a third round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, but only featured in one NHL game. Interestingly, it ended up being against the Flames. He spent his most fruitful years in the WHL with the Kamloops Blazers, where he played alongside Jarome Iginla and won three Memorial Cups. Following that, he mostly bounced between the IHL and AHL, putting up decent but not spectacular numbers.

His foray into coaching has been mixed. While in the WHL, Huska saw immense success. He won the Memorial Cup as an Assistant Coach in 2004, and took Kelowna back there again as the team’s Head Coach but they lost in the finals in 2009. Flames forward Mikael Backlund was on that 2009 team. He was also an Assistant Coach for Team Canada at the World Juniors in 2010 and 2011, picking up a bronze and silver medal respectively.

Jumping to the AHL did not prove as fruitful however. In only one of his four years in charge did the team make the playoffs, and the one year that they did, they were knocked out in the first round. Mind you, the Flames’ organization does not have the same resources to allocate to their AHL team as larger clubs do, so perhaps these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. The bigger thing to look at is that under his tenure, 15 of his players played were called up to the NHL, with a number still in the Flames’ lineup.

The implication of choosing Huska to replace Ward would show that the organization believes in the team’s younger players. It believes that the core guys of Andersson, Dube, Mangiapane, and more are the future, and the team is going to build around this group.

Ray Edwards

A relatively unknown guy to most of the Flames’ fan base, Edwards has a very interesting history with hockey. An undrafted forward, Edwards put up 52 points and 201 penalty minutes in 56 games in his best season in junior hockey before going to the ECHL. He spent his entire pro career in the league, picking up many more penalty minutes than points. In his final three years, he served as a player-assistant with the Huntington Blizzards, a rare sight to see in hockey.

Following his final season on the ice, he became the Head Coach of the Blizzards, where he remained for three seasons, putting up average numbers. From there, he jumped over to the now defunct Central Hockey League for three seasons, where he posted above .500 records each season, going as far as the third round of the playoffs one year.

Edwards then made the jump to the AHL, first as an assistant, and then as the coach of the San Antonio Rampage. In his two seasons in charge the team never made the playoffs, but were about .500 each year. He also coached with the Portland Pirates for three years, making the playoffs twice.

He joined the Flames after that in a player development role for four seasons before getting on the bench midway through last season after Bill Peters left the team. It is hard to evaluate his role in player development from the outside, but having been in the role for as long as he was and then being promoted and renewed behind the bench shows that the organization clearly has some faith in him.

His on-the-bench impact is a bit clearer. He was, and continues to be, in charge of the team’s powerplay. From the time he took over to the end of the regular season last year, the team converted on 25% of their chances with the man advantage, good for fourth in the league. They also converted on nearly 30% of their chances in the playoffs, good for third among playoff teams. This season started with a bang, but the team’s powerplay success, along with their general on-ice performance, has decreased substantially. How much of that is due to coaching versus just general attitude is hard to tell, but it seems as though the system has generally worked (as much as the drop pass may grind Flames fans’ gears).

Is Edwards the guy for the Flames? He has a lot of coaching experience in lower leagues but his success rate leaves something to be desired. That being said, his experience in making players better as well as how successful he was coaching the powerplay does keep his name firmly in the running should the team elect to make a change. With limited options on the bench, it is not the worst idea.

Martin Gelinas

The Eliminator during the Flames’ 2004 Stanley Cup run, Gelinas scored a record-tying three (should have been four) playoff series-clinching goals in the run and became a hero to many fans. A veteran of over 1200 NHL games, Gelinas put up 660 points on six teams over 19 years in the NHL.

Upon his retirement, Gelinas joined the Nashville Predators as the Director of Player Development for three years before joining the Flames as an assistant coach in 2012 under Bob Hartley. The longest serving assistant coach for the Flames, Gelinas has run the powerplay and penalty kill over his years, been the “eye in the sky”, and now seems to be a staple on the team’s bench.

Gelinas is an interesting choice. He has been around the longest of the Flames’ assistant coaches, aside from video coach Jamie Pringle, and still has strong memories associated with him from his time as a player with the team. He has experience working with young players from his time in Nashville, and has been around the team long enough to know how it operates.

The downside with Gelinas is twofold. First, he has no coaching track record outside of the Flames. He has never been a Head Coach on any team, let alone in the NHL. On top of that, there is a good chance that he has been around the Flames for so long that the players may tune him out. For a team looking for a shake-up, calling up the coach who has been with the team for eight years may not do it.

That being said, of all Flames’ coaches, he has the most NHL experience as a player. He has won the Stanley Cup, was an incredibly high draft pick, is a part of organizational history, and has ties to the team’s management, having played alongside AGM Craig Conroy. If the Flames want a guy who has won it all and want to ensure alignment from the top down, Gelinas may be the right choice.

Cail MacLean

Probably the least likely option of the four, Cail MacLean is the current coach of the Stockton Heat and has been around the organization a long time. An undrafted forward, MacLean played his junior hockey in Kingston with the Frontenacs, the same team that Sam Bennett once played for, before playing his career between the AHL and ECHL.

He finished his career with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2007-08 before becoming an Assistant Coach with them the following season. He then succeeded current Head Coach of the Colorado Avalanche Jared Bednar as the Head Coach of the Stingrays in 2009 for two seasons. The team made it to the playoffs both years, but failed to get past the first round.

Following that, he joined the Heat for two seasons as an Assistant Coach before becoming the Head Coach of the Flames’ affiliate Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL. Both years the team made the playoffs, going as far as the second round one year. The Flames then ended their relationship with the Thunder, and MacLean joined the Heat as an Assistant Coach again before taking the Head Coaching job in 2018-19.

In his two years in charge of the Heat, the team went 61-48-8-6 but failed to qualify for the playoffs in year one and the playoffs were cancelled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This season, the Heat are 1-2, having been blown out by Toronto twice, but blowing them out in their most recent contest.

MacLean is probably the least likely option for the team as it would mean re-shuffling their coaching staff at the AHL level as well, but he clearly has a lot of experience in this role and has worked with a number of the Flames’ young players in the past. He has been around the organization for seven years and has worked his way up from the ECHL to the AHL, so there is clearly something about him that the Flames like. Maybe not ready for the NHL job quite yet, but he is definitely a guy to keep an eye on for a call-up to the NHL staff potentially sooner rather than later.

What do you think? Who should be the Flames’ next coach should they remove Geoff Ward? Let us know below or on social media.

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