EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – When Glen Gulutzan arrived last as the Calgary Flames’ head coach last summer he saw a team that played a little too loose.
Under the previous coaching regime, the Flames were known as a group that threw long stretch passes up the ice to try to create opportunities. While this worked well in 2014-15 when they made the playoffs, the NHL caught onto defending them in 2015-16 when they missed the postseason.
Gulutzan was immediately tasked with taking this out of the Flames’ game in hopes that this could make them a more possession friendly team.
“We just kept the word ‘connected’ in everything we did,” the 45-year-old Gulutzan said. “Not only in a group of five but also as a team away from the ice. We wanted to have a real connected team and a real close team. We use the word ‘connected.’ You need to play in fives. We can’t separate ourselves.”
Gulutzan tried to have the Flames make higher percentage plays with their breakouts and zone entries and work as a unit to move the puck up the ice. Early on the team struggled to adapt and sometimes reverted back to their old habits in losing five of their first six games. Some players also saw their stats drop, like forward Sean Monahan who had four points in his first 13 games.
But once they figured out what Gulutzan wanted they took off and played steady hockey from February onward, holding a 20-8-1 record from then til now. This includes a stretch where they won 12 of 13 games in March. After missing the playoffs a year ago the Flames made this year’s postseason and look like a team that could make a surprise run.
“Obviously we were kind of known for that stretch pass to chip it in,” Monahan said. “With the guys we have on our team, that doesn’t give us much control of the puck. I don’t think that helped us a lot but having more control and moving the puck low and skating the puck out of our own end – that’s huge. He pushed that from the day he came in and I think that’s come a long way for us.”
Overall, Gulutzan’s approach that blends a cerebral take on the game with a youthful exuberance was exactly what the Flames needed. While former coach Bob Hartley helped a lot of the team’s younger players like Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau become top NHL performers, he didn’t seem to adapt his style when it appeared the Flames needed to change how they played.
In 2014-15 Calgary made the playoffs and Hartley won the Jack Adams Award, but the team finished 28th in adjusted 5-on-5 CF% and it seemed a matter of time before they would regress in the standings. That happened the following season when they ranked 24th in adjusted 5-on-5 CF% and finished 26th overall in the NHL.
The Flames fired Hartley and brought in Gulutzan who did a decent job with the Dallas Stars in 2011-12 and 2012-13 with a 64-57-9 record, but was let go by then new general manager Jim Nill who wanted to bring in his own coach.
Gulutzan was hired as an assistant coach for the Vancouver Canucks and spent the next three seasons there – one with John Tortorella as head coach and the other two with Willie Desjardins as his boss.
After Gulutzan was fired by Dallas it appeared he would at least have some head coaching opportunities quickly because of his age, experience and the fact that they Stars played well for him, but he was snubbed for three straight years. Sometimes he wondered if he would indeed get another shot.
“I did, I did. I got to work with some wonderful people after I got fired in Dallas. I look back at the Dallas experience and it helped me, it really helped me. It gave me experience in the league. It hurt me a little bit too as a young guy but I look back on that Dallas team and we did some real good things. We weren’t expected to do a lot. We were always in the hunt. We just couldn’t get over the top,” Gulutzan said. “Did I think I was going to get a chance? You never know in this league. I was hoping I would just because of the things I learned I wanted another chance.”
When the Flames struggled out of the gate with Gulutzan, there were a few questions as to whether he was indeed the right person for the job, but he had faith that his system would eventually work and all the team needed was time.
“You could see some of (our old habits) creep back in. Especially whenever we didn’t have success early, and you could see us revert back to the old way,” he said. “It took us a while to get rid of that. It was like speed bumps, right? It just took us a while to get through it.”
Eventually the players started to see that playing with a steadier more controlled pace led to winning results and once that happened their total ‘buy in’ to Gulutzan was rather quick.
“I think the systems he brought in are better for our team,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “Obviously it’s not as much ‘run-and-gun.’ It’s more structured and stuff and we’ve shown when we do play the right way it’s very effective so it took a little bit of time at the beginning of the year to get used to that and for everyone to buy in, but I think once we got rolling that was a big part of the success we had.”
A big key with Gulutzan is that he doesn’t shy away from analytics at all and indicated he also looks beyond internal team advanced stats. Often NHL coaches say they don’t go further than their own stats but Gulutzan said he’s fine with doing this, which is indicative of his progressive nature. Calgary currently ranks seventh in the NHL with a 51.11 adjusted 5-on-5 CF%.
“I look a little bit,” he said. “We have our own analytics too. I look at chances for and against. I do look at our Corsi and I do look at all those little gauges of how we’re doing in the league. I know that we’re about 50 at some point here I don’t quite know where we are now, but we’ve made big strides.”
Part of Gulutzan’s success also has to do with his recent NHL experience. His time in Dallas and then Vancouver helped him get a better grasp on what it was like to be an NHL bench boss and understand the league. Before he got the job in Dallas he had never coached – or played – in the NHL and spent six seasons with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and two with the AHL’s Texas Stars. Those stops taught him how to be a head coach but not how to navigate the NHL.
“I understand the league, being in it for six years now. I understand the players’ mentality, which I didn’t have that experience (before) as a player or a coach,” Gulutzan said.
More than anything, Gulutzan has helped the Flames organization get back on track and seem like a team on the rise, rather than a team that had one good season and then dropped back into mediocrity. There’s a sense that he can grow with Calgary and be the right type of guiding voice that can push it in the right direction for years to come.
Said Monahan, “I mean obviously Bob would push you. He was a great coach and I like Bob a lot. I think Glen has a different approach kind of. He’s younger and he kind of knows what the boys kind of want. He relies on talking to leaders and the older guys on the team to see what the mood is and stuff like that and I think the little things like that – they really help teams out.”
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