Future of Flames’ Geoff Ward undecided, but choice is obvious

Calgary Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward joins HC to discuss his and the club's performance since he took over behind the bench, says they accomplished the three goals they set out to complete, and is happy with the overall progress.

Brad Treliving insists he has yet to make a decision on whether he’ll remove the interim tag on Geoff Ward’s coaching title.

“Not at this point,” the Flames general manager said Tuesday.

“That’s not to be taken either way. We were in the middle of the last month of our season and all of sudden it stopped, like running a 100-metre dash in an 80-metre gym. That’s certainly an issue that’s got to be addressed at some point. I don’t know when it is, but we have to work on these other files and get clarification on whether the season is coming back.”

At some point the answer has to be affirmative, giving Ward the luxury of planning his family’s future.

Ward deserves as much.

There really is no other choice for Treliving.

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Now may not be the time to make such an announcement, given the suspended animation the league finds itself in.

But make no mistake, it should happen.

If indeed this season is ultimately scrapped due to an extended COVID-19 battle, clarifying Ward’s status should be one of Treliving’s first orders of business.

After all, the numbers don’t lie.

When word of Bill Peters’ racial transgressions surfaced on Nov. 25, the Flames sat 26th in the league in points percentage at 12-12-4.

From the time Ward was promoted from associate coach to interim boss, the Flames went 24-15-3 despite a whirlwind of speculation and uncertainty that hovered over the franchise.

Ward helped insulate the team and steer the lads through uncharted waters with an unthinkable run of seven straight wins, turning an awful start into a hunt for a playoff race.

He did so with a radically different approach than the one Peters took, by empowering players to take ownership of the program, gathering their input and working with them to shape everything from their system and lines to their schedule.

The players responded favourably, playing at a .616 clip (8th in the league) that would have landed the club at 101 points over an 82-game schedule.

In that time, the team’s offence went from 30th (2.37 goals per game) to 10th (3.26).

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

They tightened up defensively and saw their power play go from 22nd in their first 27 games, to third over the balance of the year, connecting at a 25.2 per cent rate.

The work of Martin Gelinas and the addition of Ray Edwards had lots to do with the power play’s resurgence, as the coaching staff found better ways to get more from a previously underachieving group.

“We just really tried to foster an environment where there was a lot of communication from the players and all the staff,” Ward said of an approach that has helped the Flames land third in the Pacific division right now.

“We wanted to see if we could empower our guys a little bit more, so we got some more accountability and commitment. We believe if people feel like they have ownership in something, you are more prepared to buy in. We felt we made improvements in what we wanted to do there.”

A good example of how his open-door policy paid off came when Mikael Backlund suggested after the all-star break that the experiment of him playing on the wing should end.

His move back to the middle of the second line made him one of the hottest players in the league, scoring 10 times and adding 11 assists in 15 games.

His comfort with Ward opened the door for that success.

Well-liked and respected by the players, Ward’s experience as a former Stanley Cup winner in Boston gives him credibility. A former coach of the year and league champion in Germany in the midst of his 13 years of NHL experience, the former school teacher came a close second to Glen Gulutzan two coaching hires ago for Treliving.

On that note, if for some reason Treliving isn’t convinced Ward is the man moving forward, the GM would be looking to hire the team’s fifth coach over the past six years. Not ideal.

Treliving said it himself – this team has long needed stability at the coaching position.

Ward seems perfectly suited to provide just that, with his calm, measured approach. An intelligent, respectful front man whose daily pressers include thoughtful, detailed explanations for media and the fans, Ward is the right person for the job.

Those who are quick to suggest the Flames should consider dipping into a deep pool of established winners on the coaching sideline – Peter Laviolette, Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant and Mike Babcock – should be reminded the Flames ownership group has never been interested in paying top dollar for proven coaching commodities.

Especially given the rising cost of top coaches and the plight of the local economy, there’s little chance that philosophy will change.

Ward, who got a bump in pay when thrust into the top job, has one year left on his deal and would come at an extremely affordable price, if extended.

With pending coaching vacancies in Detroit and his former club in New Jersey, among others, you better believe Ward would sure like to know what his coaching fate is.

“That’s not up to me,” Ward, 58, said in the midst of packing boxes for a move to downsize his family’s Calgary residence.

“That’s up to management and the owners, and I’m sure the players will have some input on that as well. I’m sure Tree will touch base with the players to see if they felt I was effective or not. It’s out of my control. Based on the things that have happened since the coaching change, they’ll have to make a call on how effective we were.”

The answer is obvious.

The rationale behind waiting this long to lift the interim tag revolved around Treliving’s desire to see how the team would fare down the stretch and in the playoffs before being absolutely sure Ward was his guy moving forward.

It’s quite likely Treliving won’t have that luxury, meaning he’ll have to go with what he’s seen so far, which has been exemplary.

Treliving said it’s not like he’s been evaluating Ward on a daily basis, but just hasn’t taken time to stand back and evaluate the big picture — as he’ll do whenever the season ends.

At that point, it will become abundantly clear there’s only one move to make: erase the word interim and ensure Ward is locked up in Calgary.

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