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On the Flames’ Coaching Search and Why it Doesn’t Matter…For Now



Ever since dismissing Brent Sutter at the end of the 2011-12 season, the Calgary Flames have been (presumably) working tirelessly in their search for a head coach. So tirelessly in fact, that assistant coach Craig Hartsburg is just now rumoured to be a candidate for the position (Justin elaborates on why he wouldn’t be the worst choice to coach a team in transition here).

A variety of other names have cropped up over the course of the past one and half months, from Heat head coach Troy Ward (who has been the apparent favourite) to former Winnipeg Atlanta Thrashers bench boss Bob Hartley–who may possibly spare us the agony of another Feaster retread by signing with the Canadiens any minute now.

But if the Flames aren't serious about rebuilding, and we have yet to receive any sort of indication this summer that this is not the case, then why does it really matter who the team hires as its head coach? How much can coaching influence the abilities of a bunch of players mostly on the wrong side of their prime years on a team whose overall make-up has not been altered in any extreme way since it first missed the playoffs three years ago, or even prior to that?

Here is the Flames' season-by-season record since Darryl Sutter stepped down as head coach:

Year Points W/L
2006-07 96 43-29-10
2007-08 94 42-30-10
2008-09 98 46-30-6
2009-10 90 40-32-10
2010-11 94 41-29-12
2011-12 90 37-29-16
2012-13 ? ?

In that time span, there have been only a few trades that have involved “core” members of the Flames–Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, and possibly Daymond Langkow and Rene Bourque–and larger additions like Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Curtis Glencross and the coming and going of the likes of Craig Conroy, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Mike Cammalleri. Other than that, roster turnover has been comparatively non-influential, and that is reflected in the relative consistency of the Flames’ record.

Aside from 2008-09 when it was injuries and Darryl’s cap mismanagement that screwed the team over, the Flames have been barely good enough to scrape by under three different coaches while other teams got better. 2011-12 was the worst season this club has had in terms of wins since 2002-03, but yet thanks to the Bettman point and a slight resurgence from mainstays Miikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla, they still came within a hair’s breadth of playoff contention.

If this team's composition remains similarly unchanged when the puck drops for the 2012-13 season under its fourth coach in six seasons–whomever that may be–then I see no reason to expect significantly different results, regardless of any new system or scare tactics the new boss may employ.

There’s only so much leeway to be had with a roster like the Flames currently have. You hope that some of the younger guys turn in career seasons, some injury-prone players like Mikael Backlund and David Moss manage to bounce back and play a full season (assuming both re-sign), and some of the older guys like Tanguay get lucky, but the only thing any of that really has to do with coaching is feeding the players you want to succeed offensively easier match-ups so they won’t get their heads beat in. Is that what this has come down to? This team needs a coach who knows what the heck he’s doing when it comes to line matching in order to have a slim chance of success/improvement? I don’t think that’s the best way to go about things, and as a result I’ve been almost completely ambivalent as to who and when the organization decides to name its new head coach. Jimmy Canaryshirt could have another go at things for all I care.

Now say the team goes ahead with this rebuild–Iginla and/or Kiprusoff (whimper) are traded for their worth in picks and prospects, Sven Baertschi takes over as the face of the franchise, and the Flames suddenly find themselves inundated with young talent and boundless energy. That’s when you want to make sure you’ve found the best guy for the job–a coach who is well-versed in dealing with a mix of inexperienced rookies, veterans, and the cheap, garden-variety guys plugging the holes in between. Not every coach can or is willing to work with a team composed of aspiring youngsters and spare parts that is probably going to be losing a lot of games (we can only imagine how trying that would be in many different ways) and that’s the kind of team the Flames may be soon enough. If the Flames start the season status-quo and Feaster decides halfway through that he wants to rebuild the team, then maybe a guy like Hartsburg is the best choice for now, but if and until that happens, it doesn’t particularly matter who stands behind the Flames bench.

Chances are he'll be wearing his best Brent Sutter scowl in no time anyways.

by Hayley Mutch