Calgary Flames

Taking a look at the Calgary Flames’ history of promoting assistant coaches to head coach

Just like they did with their general manager hire, the Calgary Flames hired the top internal candidate for their head coaching vacancy. Former assistant coach Ryan Huska was officially named the Flames’ 24th coach in franchise history yesterday.

With Huska being promoted to head coach from assistant coach, the Flames are ensuring that the new head coach already has experience working in the team’s locker room and with the players. Although that would typically be viewed as a positive, the hire has drawn criticism from certain fans who wanted the team to start completely fresh instead of promoting from within.

Elliotte Friedman had this to say regarding the internal promotion and perhaps echoed some fans thoughts on the hire.

“Players have told me over the years, it is very, very hard to go from assistant coach to head coach on the same team… it doesn’t work a ton.”

Friedman on the Flames promoting Ryan Huska to head coach

So how often have the Flames promoted from within for their head coaching position and how often has it led to success? Let’s take a trip down memory lane at past instances of the Flames handing their head coaching gig to a current employee.

Geoff Ward – 2019

Not a great start to the list. The most recent example of the Flames promoting an assistant or associate coach to the big job was back in 2019 when Geoff Ward was promoted mid-season. Entering the 2019–20 season, current head coach Bill Peters’ job appeared safe however some disturbing and ugly claims about his past were revealed and he was quickly let go.

Enter Ward. With the season already in full swing the Flames made the easiest move and promoted current associate coach Ward to the interim head coach position. Ward had served as the team’s associate coach for one year prior to the 2019–20 season when he was promoted. Before that he had spent time as an assistant coach across the NHL and in Germany.

Unlike Huska, Ward obviously had very limited experience in the Flames’ organization when he was given the head coaching job. In his first season as the team’s head coach, the Flames crawled into the playoffs, in part because the season ended early due to COVID-19 when the they were barely hanging onto a playoff spot.

In one of Ward’s all time blunders, he would pull the team’s playoff MVP Cam Talbot in Game 6 with the score tied 3–3 and put in David Rittich who hadn’t played in nearly two months. He would then go back to Talbot later in the game. Needless to say there were some puzzling decisions made with Ward around.

The following season, Ward would have his interim tag removed and he’d take on the head coach role full-time. Unfortunately his first full season as head coach would be an unmitigated disaster in the weak Canadian Division. Regularly being blown out by bottom feeder teams and struggling to stay above .500, the Flames would fire Ward 24 games into the season with the team sitting outside the playoffs and in a free fall.

After a dominant 2018–19 season where the Flames emphasized speed and scoring, Ward flipped the script completely and tried to turn the team into a defence-first team. It of course failed spectacularly as the Flames lacked any sort of structure or system under Ward and were below-average both defensively and on offence both seasons he was in charge.

Ward had much less experience with the Flames compared to Huska when he was named head coach, however he’s certainly a warning sign that internal promotions don’t always work out.

Jim Playfair – 2006

To find the next example of the Flames promoting an assistant coach to head coach you’d have to go all the way back to 2006, when Jim Playfair was named head coach. Playfair followed a very similar route to Huska as he served as the team’s AHL head coach before moving to the NHL as an assistant coach for the Flames and finally the head coaching role. In fact he also took over for Darryl Sutter.

Playfair served as an assistant coach in Calgary for three season under Sutter between 2003 and 2006 and when Sutter stepped down as head coach to focus on the general manager role, he named Playfair his successor in 2006. Playfair was essentially Sutter’s apprentice, as their history went all the way back to the 80s when Sutter coached Playfair in the NHL and IHL. Sutter also brought Playfair into the NHL as an assistant coach in his first year in Calgary in 2002–03.

After three years as an assistant coach and five years in the organization, Playfair was named the team’s head coach for the 2006–07 season. In his first season as head coach Playfair led the Flames to a 43–29–10 record, good for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Flames were then quickly dealt with in the first round by the juggernaut Red Wings in six games.

Despite the team scoring at a decent rate under Playfair, the Flames struggled defensively and touted the worst shot differential in the entire NHL that season at -3.2 a game. Playfair was criticized for trying to implement the exact same system as Sutter did and it led to the Flames getting worse not better.

Playfair was fired after just one season in Calgary in 2007, and moved back into an assistant coach role under new head coach Mike Keenan. In the end Playfair tried too hard to not change things behind the bench and became Sutter Lite. Right down to how hard he was on players and in the room, his act grew old very quickly considering the players were already familiar with him. He was put in a tough spot being the immediate replacement for a coach like Sutter and he failed to carve out his own identity as a coach.

Greg Gilbert – 2000

Another short-lived promotion to head coach was Greg Gilbert in the early 2000s. Gilbert was named an assistant coach for the Flames for the 2000–01 season but only served in the role for a few months before being promoted. He’d end up being named the team’s new head coach near the end of his first season as an assistant at the ripe age of 40 years old.

To close out the 2000–01 season, Gilbert posted a 4–8–2 record as head coach and the Flames missed the playoffs. In his first full season as head coach of the team in 2001–02, Gilbert led the Flames to one of their best starts in franchise history at 13–2–2–2 start only to flounder the rest of the way. They’d finish the season with a disappointing 32–35–12–3 record to finish 11th in the West and once again miss the playoffs.

The following 2002–03 season, Gilbert’s second in charge of the team as head coach, would be his last. The Flames would start the season with a dreadful 6–13–3–3 record including winning one of 12 games during one particular stretch. He would be fired from his role just 25 games into the season. Gilbert reportedly had a feud with Marc Savard due to Savard’s role on the team which led to his eventual trade away from Calgary early into the season. Gilbert would then be fired soon after.

Gilbert failed to bring any sort of unison or coordination to the Flames’ roster and system and it led to two years of disappointing results. Combined with his internal feuds with his own players and never posting a winning record, Gilbert’s time as head coach was a disaster and he was clearly promoted much too soon.

A history of failure

It’s no secret that the Flames have a less than ideal past when it comes to promoting assistant coaches to head coaches. All three examples in franchise history were complete busts that ended within two years.

Here’s the thing though, compared to the other names on this list, Huska has had much more experience at every level when it comes to coaching. All three previous examples were coaches who had incredibly limited time in the Flames organization. The same can’t be said for Huska who has paid his dues across nine years within the organization.

At the end of the day, historical failures when promoting coaches from within doesn’t mean it can’t work. It’s up to Huska now to prove that he’s the exception.

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