The last time the Calgary Flames replaced Darryl Sutter at the head coach helm with one of his assistants, things didn’t work out very well.
Jim Playfair lasted one season, in one of the strangest coaching carousels in NHL history.
Sutter had been both head coach and GM the previous year — the first following the lockout. Under Sutter, the team had won the Pacific Division but fell flat in the first round in the spring of 2006. Playfair took the lead when Sutter decided he’d be better served focusing on management.
But going from assistant coach to the top bench boss is challenging. As the assistant, Playfair was a buffer between the Big Bad Boss and the players. He was the guy they went to for bitching and moaning about ice time, special teams, or hurtful words from the other guy.
When he was promoted, Playfair proved to be too similar to his predecessor. Understandable, since Sutter was still his boss upstairs. But he abandoned what made him successful in order to try and fit the mould.
The Calgary Flames squeaked into the playoffs that year as the Western Conference’s final seed, but they were first-round fodder against the Detroit Red Wings. And after an appearance in the Stanley Cup final in 2004, it felt like the franchise was backsliding.
Instead of firing Playfair, who was put in a poor position to succeed in the first place, Sutter made him associate coach while bringing in Iron Mike Keenan overtop.
Keenan also failed to move the needle. He lasted two seasons, both with Playfair at his side and first-year exits punctuating them. Sutter brought in brother Brent next. And Playfair technically suffered a second demotion, becoming head coach of Flames AHL affiliate Abbotsford Heat for a couple of years before taking NHL associate coaching roles in Arizona and Edmonton.
It was ultimately a cautionary tale of a particularly challenging promotion — one that Calgary Flames assistant Ryan Huska is about to take on.
According to reports, Huska will be named the next Flames head coach on Monday, after serving as an assistant in Calgary the past five years.
Kevin Weekes reported it was a done deal on Friday after Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman declared Huska the Flames’ leading candidate on Thursday night during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
He beat out fellow internal candidate Mitch Love, the two-time reigning AHL coach of the year with the Calgary Wranglers/Stockton Heat, current Flames associate coach Kirk Muller, and externals including the short-listed Travis Green and Todd Rierden.
Some interesting names were brought up in the initial discussion, including former Calgary Flames players Alex Tanguay and Marc Savard.
In the end, Huska has the most NHL experience of the internals.
But does he have the respect of the current Flames players?
You have to believe those voices — which so loudly opposed Sutter’s methods that they ultimately contributed to his dismissal — have also been supportive of Conroy’s choice in replacement.
Huska was head coach in Stockton when current Flames graduates Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson, Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube were AHL rookies. He’s coached core pieces Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, and Noah Hanifin in all five seasons as an NHL assistant, too. He’s even got previous experience on the same bench as key Flames player Jonathan Huberdeau, from way back in the 2012 U-20 World Juniors with Team Canada.
And for the last five years, he’s led the Calgary Flames penalty kill — quite successfully.
Watch for an injection of offensive help on the coaching staff, if not on Monday, later this summer, to continue the momentum of a new era in Flames management.
If Huska can learn anything beyond what he already knows from being a part of this organization’s development for the better part of a decade, it will be to stay true to what got him here.
It’s advice that would have served Playfair well back in the day.