Geoff Ward has yet to feel the sting of losing a game as a head coach in the National Hockey League.
Six games into his tenure behind the Calgary Flames bench, Ward’s club is undefeated, having rolled off four wins in regulation and two in overtime. It couldn’t have come at a better time for the team, following a heavy few weeks of off-ice issues and a dismal on-ice stretch, too.
It isn’t just the stack of wins that’s impressed the Flames faithful, though. The team’s taken on a new identity under Ward, embracing the new bench boss’s four-line approach and seeing contributors chip in from all corners of the lineup.
So, what exactly has that difference looked like?
A cursory look at the club’s overall success under Ward vs. the previous regime offers an odd picture of progress. In terms of scoring pace, the Flames are posting far more goals per game (4.00 goals per game now vs. 2.37 before Ward) and allowing far fewer goals-against per game (2.50 goals-against per game now vs. 3.07 before Ward).
But the shots tell a slightly different story, with the team taking slightly fewer shots per game now (29.5 now vs. 31.6 before) and allowing more shots-against (34.1 now vs. 31.8 before).
The same oddity applies to the club’s special-teams success. When Ward took over, the Flames sent out a disappointing power play, good for 22nd in the league, but a penalty kill that found far more success, ranking fifth-best league-wide. Through these six games, the power play has been the fourth-best in the NHL (a 29.4 per cent success rate), while the penalty kill has ranked 22nd under Ward’s brief tenure.
Team performance before Ward’s arrival
Games Played: 27
Goals For: 64 (2.37 goals per game)
Goals Against: 83 (3.07 goals-against per game)
Shots For: 854 (31.6 shots per game)
Shots Against: 859 (31.8 shots-against per game)
Power play: 16.3 per cent (22nd in league)
Penalty kill: 84.9 per cent (fifth in league)
Team performance after Ward’s arrival
Games Played: 6
Goals For: 24 (4.00 goals per game)
Goals Against: 15 (2.50 goals-against per game)
Shots For: 177 (29.5 shots per game)
Shots Against: 205 (34.1 shots per game)
Power play: 29.4 per cent (fourth in league)
Penalty kill: 76.5 per cent (22nd in league)
Of course, the sample size surely skews things a tad. But other aspects of Ward’s reshaping of the Flames’ season are tougher to dismiss as symptoms of a group simply reinvigorated by change.
His biggest decision so far, for example, was splitting up the Flames’ top-line trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm — not necessarily an easy one, given that line combined for an absurd 259 points last season, even if all three players looked out of sorts through the first third of 2019-20.
Under Ward, the three offensive gems were strewn throughout the rest of the lineup, each shifted onto a different line among the top nine. Lindholm moved back to the middle of the ice, centring sparkplug Matthew Tkachuk and talented young gun Andrew Mangiapane. Monahan, meanwhile, was given two-way pivot Mikael Backlund on his wing, alongside another promising prospect in Dillon Dube.
Gaudreau’s line assignment was the one that drew the most puzzled looks from Flames fans early on, with the smooth-skating dynamo lining up alongside Milan Lucic and Derek Ryan. Given these three arrangements meant no reunion for the Triple-M line, Michael Frolik was moved to the fourth line alongside newly promoted Zac Rinaldo and one of Mark Jankowski or Tobias Rieder.
Odd as the trios may have seemed at first glance, the changes have worked wonders so far.
The Flames have seen 11 different goal scorers get on the board over the past six games under Ward, with all but Backlund and Jankowski tallying goals. Monahan, who was off to a fairly uninspiring start to the year, has led the way with seven points through six games.
More significant than the big boys scoring, though, is how the Flames’ depth crew as emerged.
Dube, who had played just five NHL games this season prior to Ward taking over, with one point in that span, has rolled along at a point-per-game pace skating with Monahan and Backlund. As has Ryan, who in six games is already halfway to the total he had through the 27 games prior to the bench change. And it continues — Lucic has three goals and four points through these six games, after exactly zero goals through the pre-Ward stretch. Rinaldo, recently called up, has two goals in two games for Calgary.
It seems Ward has managed to spark his marquee players and spur them back into top form — and then he’s sprinkled them throughout the lineup to help raise up the play of everyone else, too. Is that an approach that can last? Time will tell, but so far, the big boys are buying in.
“The guys have done a good job with the buy-in. You know, it’s hard sometimes to give a little bit of yourself to give more to the team,” Ward said over the weekend during Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘After Hours’ segment. “Our guys right now, the chemistry on our team is really good. I think the guys are having confidence in the process and, as a result, it’s whatever the next guy needs to do to help the team. That’s the way that we need to proceed.”
Ward also spoke to his belief in building enough trust between players to foster a greater sense of accountability.
“You need to empower the players. I feel that they need to have ownership [of] what goes on on a daily basis with your team,” Ward said. “If you do that, I feel their accountability and their commitment level is higher, and I think it’s easier for them to demand that from each other. And as a result I think there’s a synergy that develops within your group.
“…You get a revitalized energy about your team, and we’re starting to see that with ours right now.”
Ward and his Flames will have a chance at stretching their NHL-best active win streak to seven games Thursday when they take on another club currently in the throes of a coaching change — the Toronto Maple Leafs, who’ve run out to a 6-3 record under new bench boss Sheldon Keefe.