Sunday, September 10, 2017

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Gulutzan Explains Why this Year's Start Will be Different

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Hang in there, things will turn around.

In the throes of last year's awful start for Calgary, that was the text message new Flames coach Glen Gulutzan received from his old friend Mike Sullivan, who he used to be an assistant coach with in Vancouver.

Sullivan would know. After taking over as coach in Pittsburgh in December of the previous season, the Penguins lost their first four games and six of their first eight, before eventually turning it around and six months later, winning the Stanley Cup.

Talking to Gulutzan on Saturday in Penticton, where he and his coaching staff are on hand to watch the Young Stars Classic prospect tournament, I wanted to pick his brain on how he approaches this season to ensure his team gets off to a better start. The conversation began, however, by looking back at why things did go sideways for the team out of the gate, despite all his preparation.

"Back at the time, I was surprised," he admits, about the early struggles. "I thought we would get off to a much better start. But obviously there were a lot of growing pains."

As he reflected on the rocky 5-10-1 start in which Calgary owned the league's worst record in mid-November, Gulutzan points to a number of contributing factors:

1. Familiarizing Himself with his Personnel

Gulutzan confessed that it took a while to really get to know his players. What he thought he knew from seeing them play from afar was not necessarily what they turned out to be.

"You look back at your notes from the start of the season. You look at your lines, your pairs, your match-ups, it took us probably 20 games for me as a coach to get to know my personnel and that contributed to our start," he says. "Knowing the players like I know them now, I wouldn't have had some of those combinations at the beginning."

To refresh your memory, here's how Calgary lined up in that season-opening 7-4 drubbing in Edmonton:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Versteeg
Tkachuk - Bennett - Brouwer
Ferland - Backlund - Frolik
Bouma - Stajan - Chaisson

Giordano - Wideman
Brodie - Engelland
Grossmann - Hamilton


Things began to turn around after the personnel was tweaked and lines and pairings were shuffled. Eventually, chemistry started to build.

"You can look at a few key points. We paired up Gio and Dougie that night in Minnesota (on Nov. 15). Backlund, Tkachuk and Frolik went together and those three took more of a prominent role. They weren't used in that regard early on, they developed into that. Ferly in the end, went with Mony and Johnny," Gulutzan continued. "It was getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of players that I coached against for 2-3 years, but putting my own spin on what I thought was the right combinations. That was the biggest thing."

2. No Practice Time for the Top Line

Another factor was the shambles that his team's No. 1 line was in. Don't forget that top unit for opening night of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Kris Versteeg was hastily assembled at the 11th hour and had only one practice together.

Gaudreau missed almost all of camp while awaiting a new contract. Monahan was out for most of main camp with a strained back. Versteeg was a free agent poached from the Oilers, who was signed on the eve of the season opener.

"I basically met Johnny the day before we went to Edmonton," recalls Gulutzan, with a chuckle. "I met Steeger in Edmonton, and Mony played his first game in Vancouver (the last preseason game). All of a sudden, that's our first line."

3. Implementing New Systems

Then there was the new systems Gulutzan was introducing that the players had to adjust to -- we're talking 5-on-5, power play and on the penalty kill -- all of which were significantly different from the systems the team had been playing in four-plus years under Bob Hartley.

"You put a new coach behind the bench and you think things are going to change, but it takes time," admits Gulutzan. "It took our team a little bit to settle in with the new systems and the complete 180 degree turn in style of play."

Even though as a staff, they were careful not to keep adding in additional twists after the season began, the volume of changes that had already been introduced did take some learning.

"I don't like adding layers to the cake. When you're coming in new, really, you're adding a lot of layers," he says. "They're learning a lot of new stuff. When I say we never changed anything as a coaching staff, we didn't change anything. We added the layers early. The layers were already in camp. They were all learning different stuff, different ways that we wanted them to play.

"We never changed the message from the start of the year and we never added any more layers because you want them to be in the zone. You want them to be automatic. You want them to be executing the structure of the game without thinking about it. Just making it second nature."

It's not until you reach that point of maturity with a team's systems, where the execution of them comes naturally, that long-term, sustainable success will follow.

"You can call it consistency, you can call it whatever you want, it does take a while for that to become automatic to where you're not thinking," Gulutzan says. "If you're thinking, you're hesitating. You want to be unconscious in the zone rather than conscious and thinking about it.

"The best players will always tell you -- and these are high-level athletes -- if you tell them that was a great pass or a great play, they kinda don't know how they did it, they just did it. Because they're in the zone, they're on auto-pilot. Until you get there, you can never have any fluidity. So we never added anything, or changed the message from day 1 and I guess it took 21 games for them to go, OK, I feel comfortable with this."

Growing Pains Come With the Territory

It's common for a new NHL coach to struggle off the hop. My research from this article last October, shows that nearly 80 percent of coaching hires over the last 4-5 years have experienced a rough patch to start that typically lasts the first four-to-six weeks. After that, the team starts playing much better and the wins follow.

But that doesn't make it any easier to accept, nor go through.

"There's a performance curve for every team. It's a bit like an 'S' with a dip in the beginning," explains Gulutzan. "We were in the pit and the pit of the performance curve is: Expectations? Not sure. Are we a real team? Not sure. Roles specification? Not sure. Chemistry? Not sure. And we stayed in that pit for a while."

It's at this point where Gulutzan emphasized the quality of people in his dressing room. 

"If you've got the right people and everybody gets on board, you can get out of there and we did. We slingshotted out of there and by the end of the year, we became a real team."

No kidding.

Worst record in the league on Nov. 15. Then from Jan. 26 onwards, the Flames finished the season 21-9-1, which was the second best winning percentage in the league. Only the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals were better over that final two-and-a-half months.

"For me, I look at those performance curves and we fit the bill perfectly of what a team that's being rebuilt or re-put together should go through. This year I hope that pit is just a real quick little dip."

Sticking With it Was Key

Gulutzan acknowledges that when the times were dark in October and early November, there were probably some cracks developing. It's human nature to be tempted to revert back to the old way of doing something when the new way isn't working.

"Oh, I think there was a temptation early," he says with a nod. "Johnny and Mony weren't getting the same amount of points that they were normally getting, the 'D' weren't getting the points they were normally getting. I think at around game 14, 15, 16, there was probably some OK, what are we doing?"

It's at those moments where he credits the veterans and guys in the room with letters on their sweaters.

"We have a great bunch of guys. They're great character guys. They stuck with it and they got results," Gulutzan says. "I credit our leadership at that point and I'll point to Gio, Brow, Engy, Mony. For a young guy, I give (Monahan) a lot of credit. He wasn't having the same personal success early but stayed with it and came out of it on the other side. I give high marks to all of our group for that."

Looking ahead to 2017-18, Gulutzan is confident the start this season will be a lot closer to how the team finished a year ago, then to how it began.

"We've tweaked a couple little things around how we're going to manage camp, to get a little bit more fluidity early, but the thing that I like far and above anything else is that I've got, say, 17 returning guys that know exactly what the expectations are," he says.

"So basically I've picked up 17 teachers along the way. Now it's not a crash course, it's a refresher course and for the new guys we're integrating, I've got 17 other teachers out there with me."

Final Word

In Edmonton at Rogers Place to start, home to Winnipeg, then off to the West Coast for stops in Anaheim and in Los Angeles. A little bit later in October, a tricky six-game stretch that consists of home to Minnesota, a trip to St. Louis and Nashville, then back home for Dallas, Washington and Pittsburgh.

As you look at the calibre of those opponents, the start of the season isn't going to be any easier than it was a year ago. Yet at the same time, with Gulutzan now in year two, it should be a whole lot easier.

"When I've coached in a place for multiple years, the second year was always a lot easier of a transition. Guys know expectations, roles and other guys are helping me out coaching," he says. "At the end of the day, I spend 90 minutes to two hours with these guys a day where I'm actually teaching. The rest of the time they're spending amongst themselves so they can certainly help each other out."

In less than a month, we'll see how it all plays out.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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    1. It would have been interesting to compare the starting group with guys who made the playoffs. Also would be interesting to compare that group with who you think will start the season.

      It sounds very much like BT wants both Bennett and Janko looked at as centers for the preseason. If you were making lines for the preseason who would you have play on the wings with them? Thanks.

    2. Darren no one likes to be critiqued, but Bud proof read.

      But before looking forward, it's pertinent to look back one last final time.

      Come on Darren the structure is awful. You start with, but, you use pertinent in a very awkward way, and finish off with last final.

      The next sentence

      Gulutzan says that given all the preparation, he admits he was not expecting such a rough start.

      You have glen saying he admits in the first person.

      I love the summer content Darren, and the often fresh perspective, the chance you give us to interact, although honestly we are kidding ourselves if we think that is more than one hand clapping; never the less at least it connects us with hockey at the driest point of the year. I love the new pod cast, but you’re a pro, you need to, or have someone proof your stuff. There were other point in the article where I cringed, but I thought the point had be made. I didn’t want to belabour it, and risk the wrath that often falls upon the messenger. Remember Darren it is only the people that really care that tell you the truth.

      Of course your in the Okanogan after all, and it is fall, the beginning of a new season. Celebration is in the air, you could take the position Rhett often does, and claim an excessive alcohol content lol.

      Seriously I love your stuff.

      1. Due to a full day, I had a choice. Post it at 5:30 am without doing the normal proofreading or wait until later, maybe Tuesday given the games coming up. I decided to go that route hoping that people would enjoy the content and would excuse the rare sloppy grammar. I stand by that decision. I'm a one-man show, man, producing free content. There are subscription services available that will have fewer errors in their story.

      2. And I thank you for it.

      3. Patrick Edgington, after reading your comment I have come to the conclusion that you could use a little editing from a proofreader. So I have taken the time to do that. All edits are grammatical corrections or clarification suggestions. Take it or leave it. Cheers!
        Darren, I know that no one likes to be unnecessarily critiqued – but do you proofread bud?

        “But before looking forward, it's pertinent to look back one last final time.” Come on Darren! The structure of this sentence is awful. You start with, but, you use pertinent in a very awkward way, and then finish off with “last final”.

        The next sentence could have been refined a little more if time allowed. “Gulutzan says that given all the preparation, he admits he was not expecting such a rough start.” You have gGlen saying he admits in the first person. It’s fine though really, as I understand what you were trying to say.

        I love the summer content Darren. With the often fresh perspective you present you give us the fans a chance to interact. Thanks for that! IMO though honestly we are kidding ourselves if we think that is more than one hand clapping we can predict how the opening day Flames roster and upcoming season will play out. Never the less at least it But you know what? You connect us with hockey at the driest point of the year. Thanks again! I love the new podcast. Repeating myself for emphasis I will say again that even professionals like yourself need more time to edit their work. Alternatively maybe there is someone out there who would be willing to proofread for you? Must be hard on such a tight schedule eh? There were other points in the article where I cringed, but in my opinion you made valid points. I didn’t want to belabour it, and risk the wrath that often falls upon the messenger. Remember Darren, it is only the people that really care have the same issues as you that tell you the truth how to fix yours.

        Of course your You are in the Okanogan after all, and it is Fall, the beginning of a new season, and Celebration jubilation is in the air (Read as: you could take the position Rhett often does and claim an excessive alcohol content intake. LOL.

        In all seriousness, I love your stuff. If you find a proofreader please send them my way.


      4. Thank you for the reply Darren. If I may, it comes across as defensive, and if so I am disappointed. I offered the comment on a social platform. It wasn’t rude, and it wasn’t a cheap shot. I didn’t sneak up from the weeds like so many other cowardly keyboard warriors do. I understand that we live in an age where it seems no matter how slight an error someone is just waiting for the slip so they can stick in the knife, but that was not what happened here. My name, and picture came with the comment, and I stand by it. Your fine with a comment that says great job, you should be just as quick to appreciate a negative take if it was honestly deserved.

        This is a place to comment on sports, so I don’t want to digress into the ills of social media; however this is also a social platform. All are free to offer comments. I hope Darren you can appreciate that society is people interacting. Not godady66, Evilspock, ReikokuXCM, captin flame or Anonymous

        Your name and picture accompany everything you put out for social consumption, as do mine.
        I understand you’re a real person with real feelings, and though we are strangers this media brings us together. If you don’t like what I have to say, well fair enough, you can tell me to go jump in a lake, and you will know who you’re telling, but I stand by my comment, your copy was badly written.
        No one had a gun to my head I didn’t’t have to read it, and after I got to the first point I stopped doing so because it was not enjoyable.

        I do normally find your work quite entertaining, and informative. If that was not the case I would not have commented, nor would I have bother to seek out any more of your copy, but I assume you have a stake in being sought out, and I assume you would rather present something people rave over in a positive light. Yes the world is not what it used to be, but at one time, in my lifetime that was the point of criticism. To aid

        It would seem from your reply however that you are not interested in constructive comments only positive ones. Well there are enough fair-weather followers named Anonymous to pat you on the back with a cudi hardos if that’s what you’re after.

        I’ll just go find a lake.


    3. Darren. Just find it a tad funny that the person criticizing your grammar used. 'Of course your in the Okanogan '. Instead of the more correct. 'Of course you're in the Okanogan '. Lol.

    4. Hands down you write the most exhaustively researched, most entertaining and best written blog about the Flames. To fault your work of all people for any reason is beyond pathetic. Please don't get suckered into feeding trolls. Sincerely, A devoted Flames fan.

    5. Patrick Edgington, I am waiting...

      Seriously, not every post of content needs to be a masterpiece. You need to respect time and place of when articles are written. In fact, you are probably in the minority of people that believed his writing was so egregious.

      Actually, I am too good for you... jump in something else.