Sunday, April 22, 2018

Smart Move or Colossal Mistake? Pondering the Flames Rumoured Interest in Hiring Bill Peters

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Guilty until proven innocent.

Welcome to the NHL justice system when it comes to hiring a new head coach, especially in Calgary where naturally, wild west rules apply.

Forty-eight hours ago the Bill Peters-to-the Flames rumour mill really started to sizzle when he told the Carolina Hurricanes thanks, but no thanks, and took advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract that terminated his deal with one year remaining. He had been the skipper in Raleigh the past four seasons.

“I have a lot of respect for Bill as a person and coach,” said new Owner/CEO/Governor Tom Dundon. “We thank him for his time with the Hurricanes and wish him success in whatever comes next.”

What comes next could very well be a return to his home province for Peters, who grew up on a farm near Three Hills, an 80-minute drive north-east of Calgary and later moved to Killam, a town a couple hours further east.

After taking 24 days to make the decision two years ago to fire Bob Hartley, this time around, methodical and thorough Flames GM Brad Treliving expedited the process by two full weeks in relieving Glen Gulutzan of his head coaching duties last Tuesday, only 10 days after the season’s conclusion. It seems like more than just coincidence that his comparably quick trigger finger aligned with Peters being in the midst of his one-week window of opportunity to explore other job options.

The dots that connect Treliving to Peters is two years ago when Treliving was co-GM of Team Canada for the World Championships alongside George McPhee, they hired Peters to coach that team.

A GM and his coach always form a close relationship and that isn't any different when you're seconded for an international event such as that one that took place in Russia.

In the 48 days from April 5, 2016, when Peters was hired to May 22 when Canada hoisted the World Championship trophy at the VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, they would have spent considerable time with each other and getting to know each other very well. When you enjoy success together as they did in winning gold, those bonds tend to last forever too.

As you may recall, during those seven weeks, Treliving was also looking for a head coach for his NHL team with assistant general managers Craig Conroy and Brad Pascall doing the leg work back home in Treliving's absence -- Conroy famously doing the Grouse Grind with Gulutzan. During the search, Peters was not an option as he had one year remaining on his three-year contract with the Hurricanes.

Examining Peters' Time in Carolina

After a 71-point season in year one, Peters arrived at the World Championships having just led his rebuilding club to an 86-point campaign, a 15-point improvement and Carolina's highest point total in five years. He had his club battling for a playoff spot late into the season.

In July of that summer, about six weeks after Treliving had hired Gulutzan, Carolina GM Ron Francis announced that Peters had signed a two-year extension.

"We talked at the initial press conference about changing the culture," said Francis at the press conference. "It’s not easy to do, but I think we’ve taken steps in that direction to where our guys come and play hard each and every night. I would reach out to those fans who left us a couple of years ago to come back and take another peek. They’d be pleasantly surprised at the progress we’ve made and the direction we’re going in, the work effort that’s there on the ice every night."

Trending in the right direction, Peters' club improved again in 2016-17, but only by one point. Stuck in the ruthless Metropolitan Division where four of the NHL's eight 100-point teams resided (Washington 118, Pittsburgh 111, Columbus 108, NY Rangers 102), that wouldn't be enough. Not helping was the Hurricanes 5-10-1 record against that gauntlet of four fierce divisional foes.

They were actually right there for a wild card spot in mid-January at 21-15-7, but they could not sustain that pace. A month later, Francis traded pending UFA Ron Hainsey to the Penguins for a second round pick. The 35-year-old's departure left the Hurricanes with a youthful, but inexperienced blueline in which Justin Faulk, 24, was the oldest. The rest of the new-look top-four also included Jaccob Slavin, 22, Brett Pesce, 22, and Noah Hanifin, 20.
Last season it looked for the longest time like his club’s point total would climb once again. Carolina was sitting in a wild card spot on Valentine's Day. At 27-21-9, they were one point up on the Columbus Blue Jackets and were on pace to finish the season with 91 points. But a six-game winless skid right after -- two of the losses coming to the upstart division rival New Jersey Devils -- would be the team's undoing. By season's end, the Hurricanes finished with 83 points, good enough only for sixth place in a division that would send five teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Caveats in Assessing His Time in Carolina

Peters departs Carolina having not made the playoffs in his four seasons. That's nothing new for the thrifty organization, which was last spotted in the post-season in 2009 with Paul Maurice behind the bench, after he took over earlier that season for the fired Peter Laviolette.

After winning the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006 (after one season earlier having taken over for a fired Maurice, are you following all this?), Laviolette then failed to get them into the playoffs the next two years. Maurice also couldn't get Carolina back into the the playoffs the next two seasons and he was fired in 2011-12, replaced by Kirk Muller, who eventually gave way to Peters.

Interesting that here we are in 2018 and Laviolette (Nashville) and Maurice (Winnipeg) head up two of the NHL's best teams and could soon be battling it out in the second round. While Carolina certainly hasn't enjoyed much playoff success of late, some pretty good NHL coaches have cut their teeth in that market and gone on to better things.

Getting back to Peters, in assessing his body of work in Carolina, there are three other factors in addition to the difficulty of the division to take into consideration, beyond just his win-loss record, which in a way is a lot like plus-minus for head coaches — a stat that's easy to look up and reference, but has its flaws.

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1. League-Worst Goaltending

Last year, which many anticipated might have been the breakthrough year for Carolina, the Hurricanes goaltending was the worst in the NHL. The team save percentage was dead last of the league's 31 teams. In fact, anchored by the aging Cam Ward, the goaltending has been bottom-four in each of Peters' four seasons:

2017-18 - 31st (.893) | Scott Darling (40 starts, .888), Cam Ward (42 starts, .906)
2016-17 - 27th (.901) | Cam Ward (61 starts, .905), Eddie Lack (18 starts, .902)
2015-16 - 29th (.902) | Cam Ward (51 starts, .909), Eddie Lack (31 starts, .901)
2014-15 - 28th (.902) | Cam Ward (50 starts, .910), Anton Khudobin (32 starts, .900)

You're never, ever going to have success in the NHL with league-worst or near-league-worst goaltending. It's just not happening. The last time a team ranked in the bottom-four in team save percentage made the playoffs was in 2009-10 when Pittsburgh and Ottawa both got in, despite being tied for 27th in that category.

They ended up playing each other in round 1 with the Penguins winning. Pittsburgh was then promptly eliminated by Montreal in round 2.

2. Young Team

Carolina was the third-youngest team in the NHL last year. That was even with aging Justin Williams and Lee Stempniak on the roster. Their age was most evident on the aforementioned blueline where as of January 1, the ages of the six regulars were:
  • Noah Hanifin, 20
  • Haydn Fleury, 21
  • Brett Pesce, 24
  • Jaccob Slavin, 24
  • Justin Faulk, 25
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk, 26

That's a young group at a key position. For context, four of the Flames six defence regulars are older than Trevor van Riemsdyk, the undrafted trade acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks who was this group’s elder statesman.

3. Small Payroll

Going back three seasons, which is as far back as Cap Friendly has in its archives, Carolina has always been a bottom-three team in payroll during Peters' tenure.

2017-18 - 30th | $59.2M, which was $15.8M below the ceiling
2016-17 - 30th | $56.8M, which was $16.2M below the ceiling
2015-16 - 28th | $61.2M, which was $10.2M below the ceiling

Think about that. Heck, another $16 million would be nearly enough space to fit in a Johnny Gaudreau, Dougie Hamilton and Mikael Backlund based on their 2017-18 AAV.

When you look around the Metropolitan Division and see Washington at $75.4M, Pittsburgh at $74.8M, NY Islanders at $73.9M, Philadelphia at $73.7M, NY Rangers at $72.2M, Columbus at $71.4M and New Jersey at $67.4M, it's not an even playing field.

For Carolina, they're operating at a significant disadvantage and they know it.

"I think in order to win here, everybody has to play well. It can’t be ‘our defense was a little off’ or the ‘forwards could have been better.’ Everybody has to be dialed in. That’s the only chance we have here and I think everybody recognizes that," said longtime Carolina assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour to Hurricanes beat writer Chip Alexander this weekend in the Raleigh News and Observer.

“We do need everybody to contribute and play well. The margin for error for us is not what other teams have and we know that.”

So, What has he Done?

If Peters hasn't made the Stanley Cup playoffs, why is he being considered the solution to coach an under-achieving team in Calgary that is desperately trying to get back into the playoffs?

It's the No. 1 question on the minds of disgruntled Flames fans, already furious about a hiring that has yet to happen.

Until we get a chance to hear from Treliving on this topic, here are few things to ponder:

1. Apprenticed under Mike Babcock

In 1989, Peters' last year of playing Canadian college hockey, Peters was a right winger for Red Deer College, the team coached by Mike Babcock which won the Alberta College Championship.

Over two decades later, Babcock hired Peters in July 2011 to be one of his assistant coaches with Detroit. He spent three years under Babcock, responsible primarily for the defence and penalty kill, before leaving to take the head coaching job in Carolina.

Peters reconnected with Babcock for the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, selected by Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong to join an illustrious cast of assistant coaches in Claude Julien, Barry Trotz and Joel Quenneville -- all of them guys that Flames fans would be absolutely tickled to have come in and take over for Gulutzan.

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2. Won at Other Levels

No NHL playoff appearances is the void on Peters' resume, no doubt. Or at least on his head coach resume. All three seasons he was in Detroit, the Red Wings made the post-season.

But he has won before.

The 2016 World Championship has been mentioned when he won gold with a 2-0 win over Finland. Peters was also an assistant coach under Todd McLellan the year prior when Canada beat Russia 5-4 to claim gold.
Going back to his time coaching in major junior, he won the Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008. It was after that he left for Rockford in the AHL, where he coached the Chicago Blackhawks' affiliate for three seasons through 2010-11.

While Peters didn't win the Calder Cup, his player development work is worth noting. Nine players came through his team (e.g. Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy) and graduated to Chicago, where they helped the Blackhawks win Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

Also in 2008, Peters coached the Canadian U-18 team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

The Curious Concept of the 'Proven' Coach

Full disclosure, I have always found it near impossible to assess how effective a coach is. Are coaches that have success great coaches? Or are they merely coaches that have great teams? I have no idea.

Similarly, are coaches that don't enjoy success bad coaches, or merely coaches caught in bad situations of having sub-par teams?

To this day, Ken Hitchcock has a reputation as one of hockey's best coaches and his resume was stellar early in his career. He had three consecutive deep runs with the Dallas Stars in the late 90s including winning the Stanley Cup in 1999 and reaching the Cup final in 2000. He moved onto Philadelphia and enjoyed more success there.

But in Columbus and then St. Louis and then this past season in Dallas before retiring, he accomplished very little and that was with some really great Blues teams.

Given his history with Treliving, Dave Tippett is another name frequently mentioned as a so-called proven coach. But is he really? He missed the playoffs his last five seasons with Arizona. Bad teams though? Sure, so let's give that a pass. So how about his first three seasons in Arizona when the team was better? 2009-10, he had a 107-point season, but was upset in the first round by Detroit. The next year, a 99-point season but was swept in the first round by Detroit. The one year of success is when Mike Smith arrived and played out of his mind (.944 save percentage), leading the Coyotes to the conference final.

Before that in his six years with Dallas with a team that was perennially one of the league's best, Tippett's club was upset in the first round three times. In his final year in which he was fired, they missed the playoffs altogether.

Babcock is another prime example. Highly sought after as one of the best coaches, who had two straight trips to the Stanley Cup final with Detroit in the late 2000s. But then the long post-season runs dried up despite some stellar Red Wings teams with the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom. In the last five seasons, he has not made it to the second round. Did he win Olympic gold with Canada? You bet, but he had a pretty good team also.

The point is I think it's very difficult if not impossible to truly measure how effective a coach is. Mike Sullivan had the same amount of NHL head coaching experience as Gulutzan when he was hired in Pittsburgh three years ago. He has won two Stanley Cups. Great coach or the beneficiary of inheriting a great team loaded with star players?

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What we do Know about Peters

1. Plays a Puck Possession Style

What we know about Peters is he is big on playing a puck possession style. When you're on the rush, don't chip the puck in and chase it, if you have the puck, hang onto it and make a play. Same thing when breaking out. Don't just shoot it away if you don't have an option, regroup, go D-to-D to open up the ice and wait for an option to become available.

For what it's worth, the Hurricanes were the No. 1 team in the NHL in possession last year as measured by SAT% Close, which is the ratio of shot attempts for versus against at 5-on-5 when the score is close.

2017-18 SAT% Close

1. Carolina, 55.07
2. Boston 53.40
3. Tampa Bay, 52.95
4. Calgary, 52.79
5. Pittsburgh, 51.81
6. San Jose, 51.72
7. Winnipeg, 51.64
8. Dallas, 51.59
9. Nashville, 51.52
10. Columbus, 51.30

There are some pretty good teams still playing right now at the top of that list. Interesting to see Calgary there too. More on that later.

2. Limited Shots Against

Contributing to the above stat, Carolina led the NHL in fewest shots allowed in 2017-18:

1. Carolina, 28.9
2. Boston, 29.3
3. St. Louis, 29.7
4. Dallas, 29.8
5. Philadelphia, 29.9
6. San Jose, 30.3
7. Vegas, 30.7
8. Los Angeles, 30.9
9. Pittsburgh, 31.1
10. Calgary, 31.1

Considering how young his blueline was, that's quite an accomplishment. The only glaring issue was when there were shots allowed, they often went in.

3. Disciplined Team

How much of this Peters had to do with and how much is just the personnel is impossible to gauge but Carolina was the runaway leader last season in fewest times shorthanded.

1. Carolina, 191
2. Columbus, 214
3. Philadelphia, 223
4. San Jose, 224
5. Arizona, 225

Calgary ranked 24th at 269.

Furthermore, the Hurricanes ranked No. 1 in this category each of the two previous seasons also and were second in 2014-15, Peters' first season at the helm.

If he could have some sort of influence in that area, that would sure be a positive.

The NHL tracks minor penalties taken per 60 minutes and on the Flames, Garnet Hathaway (1.68), Sam Bennett (1.38), Matt Stajan (1.13), Dougie Hamilton (1.09) and Mikael Backlund (1.08) were all penalized more frequently than the highest Hurricane, who was Marcus Kruger (1.04).

4. Youth Got Opportunity

Given his team was so young, this is another one of those areas that can be interpreted different ways but there were a couple of examples that I came across where young players received more ice time than they would have gotten in Calgary under Gulutzan, who freely admitted that he was a stubbornly hard guy for young players to earn the trust of.

Last season, the Hurricanes brought up 22-year-old left-winger Valentin Zykov, who had led Carolina's AHL team in goals. He played 10 games in the NHL, spending his time on the team's No. 1 line alongside Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. He even saw some power play time. In those 10 games, Zykov had seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) while averaging 13:42 in ice time.

It's a strikingly similar situation to the Flames and left-winger Andrew Mangiapane, who also led his AHL team in goals and also got a 10-game look in the NHL. However, the difference was how Mangiapane was deployed, playing mostly fourth line and not getting any time on the man advantage. The 22-year-old failed to pick up a point in his 10 games while logging just 8:56.

For more examples, Aho logged 16:47 as a rookie, Victor Rask played 16:20 in his first year and even Phillip Di Giuseppe at 14:16 in his first NHL season wasn't far behind the modest 14:40 that the talented Matthew Tkachuk had to scratch and claw for in his rookie season.

The other example is on the blueline. Here is the average time-on-ice in their rookie seasons for four Carolina defencemen who broke in on Peters' watch:
  • Jaccob Slavin, 20:59
  • Brett Pesce, 18:46
  • Noah Hanifin, 17:54
  • Haydn Fleury, 16:48

In Calgary, Brett Kulak has averaged 13:16 in his career so far.

Now much of this is opportunity/needs driven, of course, with Calgary having a veteran top-four in place the last couple years. That said, in an organization in which the likes of Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, Adam Fox and Oliver Kylington might all be pushing for NHL spots in the near future, it's interesting background.

5. Player Growth

Again, this is hard one to assess from so far away. I'd be lying if I told you I watched countless Carolina Hurricanes games the last few years.

While Jeff Skinner's regression is one to wonder about and even be concerned about, the young Finns Aho and Teravainen appear to be coming along nicely. Again, then there's that young blueline.

Social Media Firestorm

It's been fascinating to watch the reaction to the Peters rumours on social media. This guy has already being run out of town and he hasn't even arrived in town.

It speaks to the unhappiness of the cantankerous fan base who after a disappointing season, wanted coaches heads on a stake -- and got them, now already they're sharpening up the next shoots of bamboo.

Since Peters resigned, a few blogs have made the rounds with a less-than-flattering review of his time in Carolina. Then again, what else was anyone expecting. You don't have to dig very deep to find the same things in New York about Alain Vigneault, same thing in Arizona after Tippett parted ways, and also in Dallas after Lindy Ruff exited. Parting shots, always.

As I see it, NHL coaches and blogs are like hotels and Trip Advisor. You are always going to find a dissenting opinion. Always.

The truth of the matter, but it makes for horrible pub conversation and even worse sports talk radio, is we as fans or media don't know who will be the best guy to guide the Calgary Flames.

Unless you're Treliving and know exactly what the difficulties were last season -- whether it's hard-to-coach players, fragile egos, dysfunction, divisions -- you don't know. All that stuff that goes on behind the dressing room door that a coach needs to deal with as a hockey team's head of Human Resources, that’s information we're not privy to.

Similarly, of all the coach candidates being touted, whether it be Peters or Vigneault or soon-to-be-60 Darryl Sutter or whomever, what makes them the best fit? What is it about how they've operated in the past both on and off the ice that makes them the right choice for this specific situation? Again, it's impossible to know from afar. You need to be familiar with how they operate behind closed doors. Win-loss record is one factor, but it's just one of many variables to take into consideration.

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Final Word

For Treliving, this next hire is his last bullet. He knows it.

Rarely does a GM get to hire a second coach. He inherited Hartley, hired Gulutzan, now he is looking for his second coach in three years. For a guy who is as thorough as they get in information gathering and doing background checks on anybody being brought into the organization, you know it's not going to be any different with this particular hire.

So while the fan base is up in arms, thinking they have some bit of incriminating intel on Peters that the GM doesn't have. Sorry to break it to you, but you don't.
As for whether it will be the right hire, that part we'll have to wait and see. Armed with a solid goaltender in Mike Smith, a superstar like Johnny Gaudreau, a reliable veteran leader on defence in Mark Giordano, an all-in, enormously talented, shit-disturber like Matthew Tkachuk -- four weapons he arguably hasn't had before -- can he put this club over the top?
Two years ago, Peters was highly touted, lauded as progressive and was viewed by many as one of the fast-rising great hockey minds in the NHL. Again, I defer to that elite group he rubbed shoulders with behind Canada's bench for the World Cup. Has he suddenly become a bad coach in the last two years? Or just a victim of circumstances? There are several narratives, either go ahead and make up your mind right now and pick one, or do what I'm doing and just let it play out.
Some of the criticism is he is merely Glen Gulutzan 2.0. But if this upgraded model brings with him an assistant coach that can execute a better power play, if he gives prospects like Mangiapane, Spencer Foo, Dillon Dube and Rasmus Andersson legitimate opportunities to play, and if makes a few less head-scratching personnel decisions, being similar to Gulutzan isn't a bad thing.

Whether you want to admit it or not, Gulutzan converted Calgary's style of game to a more sustainable, conducive-to-winning approach over the past two seasons from the stretch-pass-and-pray system under Hartley. Oh, the latter was great when the cardiac kids 'found a way' (e.g. 2014-15), but when they didn't (e.g. 2015-16), uh-oh.

Will Peters ultimately prove himself to be an innocent man and cleared of all current guilty charges? If so, he'll certainly be owed some restitution.