On May 31, 2018, the Calgary Flames lured Geoff Ward away from the New Jersey Devils by hiring him as associate coach. On November 27, 2019, he took over behind the bench for Bill Peters and was officially made interim coach upon Peters’ resignation two days later.
43 regular season games and a playoff series later, has Ward done enough to become a fully-fledged Flames head coach?
Regular season performance
Under Ward, the Flames went 25-15-3 in the remaining regular season games. By points percentage, the Flames were eighth in the NHL during his tenure. Their power play converted 25.2% of their chances, third-best in the NHL, while their penalty kill stopped 79.6% of opposing PPs, good for 18th in the league. They were 26th by points percentage when Peters resigned, with a worse PP but better PK.
Possession-wise, the Flames under Ward had 49.2% Corsi For (19th), 48.6% Shots For (21st), 50.8% Expected Goals For (16th), 49.8% Scoring Chances For and 52.5% High-Danger Scoring Chances For (sixth). The Flames had a PDO of 1.011 under Ward; they were 11th in shooting percentage and 8th in save percentage, so an argument can be made that some of their regular season performance was driven by good puck luck. (They were a better possession team under Peters, but were worse in terms of high-danger scoring chances for and against.)
Stylistically, the Ward Flames were a bit of a mix between Bob Hartley’s Flames and Glen Gulutzan’s. They weren’t an aggressive defensive team at the blueline, but they relied on structure to force attackers to the outside and try to generate offense with waves of attackers rather than a true cycle.
Flames coaches who have won a post-season series
|Terry Crisp||5||1988 first round, 1989 first round, 1989 second round, 1989 conference final, 1989 Stanley Cup Final|
|Bob Johnson||5||1983 first round, 1984 first round, 1986 first round, 1986 second round, 1986 conference final|
|Darryl Sutter||3||2004 first round, 2004 second round, 2004 conferece final|
|Al MacNeil||2||1981 first round, 1981 second round|
|Bob Hartley||1||2015 first round|
|Geoff Ward||1*||2020 qualifying*|
“Everybody else” includes Bernie Geoffrion, Fred Creighton, Doug Risebrough, Dave King, Pierre Page, Brian Sutter, Don Hay, Greg Gilbert, Jim Playfair, Mike Keenan, Brent Sutter, Glen Gulutzan and Bill Peters.
In terms of just games won in the post-season, Ward’s current total of three ranks hm ahead of Geoffrion, Creighton, Page, Brian Sutter, Hay, Gilbert, Playfair, Brent Sutter, Gulutzan and Peters.
Even factoring in the pedigree of the team he inherited – the Flames are a year removed from trouncing the West in the regular season – and the quality of the team they beat in the playoffs – Winnipeg was beaten up – Ward has fared better than a lot of pretty seasoned coaches.
Does he need to win a “real” round?
Now, if you want to put an asterisk on Ward’s achievement (like we have) because of the expanded playoff format, that’s probably within reason. The other Flames coaches that won rounds did so when the post-season had 16 teams in it – the playoffs were standardized at 16 teams beginning in 1980-81, in fact. It’s probably fair to want to wait to see how the Flames do against St. Louis or Dallas in the next round of the post-season before promoting Ward fully.
That said, the Flames have been a club that has stumbled over their own feet with some regularity. Much of the adversity they’ve been through over the past decade (or more) has been self-inflicted, so the mere fact that Ward got them all on the same page long enough to finish off a wounded Jets team is definitely noteworthy and praiseworthy.
The benefit of an audition
A common rebuttal to any praise of Ward on social media is “Hey, go get Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette or Hotshot Coach C.” Now, even assuming the Flames would be willing to shell out big bucks for a big name – right after Murray Edwards wrote a $275 million cheque for a new arena – and that they had the wherewithal to hire a whole new coaching staff, there would be the question of fit.
Y’know why people go on dates before getting married? Because you need to know how you get along with the other person before making a pretty significant commitment. The Flames hiring Ward on an interim basis has been a dating process, albeit by another name.
And so far, the fit has been pretty good. Here’s what a trio of veteran players said about Ward’s impact to Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson on the media Zoom call following Game 4:
He’s done a really good job of us buying into one another, buying into the system, making us believe in ourselves and each other. Yeah, the systems and Xs and Os and all that type of stuff is there, but from a motivating standpoint and bringing the guys together and making us believe in it all, is I think the biggest thing out of anything.
He’s such a good motivator, a calming influence. He’ll give you a kick in the ass when you need it, but he’ll also praise you when the time is needed. He’s been a heck of a leader for us and a lot of credit has to go to him stepping into that role and really owning it.
He’s brought our group way closer together, I feel like. He’s just a guy who demands respect. He’s been there. He’s won before, so his words carry a lot of weight.
There’s no guarantee that Gallant or Laviolette or whoever would click with the team’s core group as much as Ward already has. With the window to maximize the playoff success of the core fairly limited, it might make sense to double down on what’s already worked with Ward.