CALGARY – Geoff Ward helped save the Calgary Flames’ season, and positioned the team well to try prolonging it.
In between, he empowered players like Milan Lucic, Sam Bennett and Dillon Dube to rise to a playoff prominence that had third-liners leading the way.
He successfully implemented a new style of play just for the playoffs that preached physicality and defence, above all.
It helped the team get over a small playoff hump against the Winnipeg Jets and positioned them to be within 12 seconds of going up 3-1 on an impressive veteran club in the Dallas Stars.
Yes, the team fell short and Ward made a questionable goaltending move that served to fuel his team’s historic Game 6 meltdown.
But to understand just how far Ward brought this bunch requires going back to late November when the Flames were threatening to sewer their season.
The team was in the midst of going eight games without a regulation win when the racist and abusive allegations against coach Bill Peters surfaced, prompting GM Brad Treliving to promote Ward from assistant coach to the team’s interim saviour.
“It was a good team that, in my opinion, had lost its way,” explained Treliving at his season-ending availability.
“There was a belief in this group. More than anything (the coaching staff) brought stability. There wasn’t a lot of change tactically. I felt our team played a little freer.”
Introducing an open-door policy in which players were encouraged to provide Ward feedback and thoughts on everything from lines to scheduling, the team immediately won an unfathomable seven games in a row.
As the Peters controversy swirled, the players dug in and played for a staff that Treliving praised from top to bottom Monday.
“Geoff was an experienced guy and I felt he was the right guy to take ahold of it,” said Treliving.
“I think Geoff and the staff did a really good job. With all the chaos going on, getting stabilized was priority No. 1.”
He not only stabilized them, but he also helped them flourish to a 24-15-3 record, a clip that was eighth-best in the league and would have put the Flames at 101 points over a full season.
His team went from 30th in league scoring to tenth, thanks in part to a power play that went from 22nd to be the league’s third-most productive, landing them a playoff spot few could have predicted when he took over a team that was five games below .500.
When Mikael Backlund felt his experiment on the wing had run its course, he was comfortable telling the coach as much, prompting an ensuing scoring binge as a centre that had him top five in league scoring before the pandemic pause.
When camp resumed, he went to work on implementing the gritty, buttoned-up playoff style the team quickly grew comfortable with.
No one embraced the new approach better than Lucic, Bennett and Dube, who had been built up by Ward to believe they could play leadership roles despite residing on the third line.
“The empowerment really helped with the players – it made them feel like they were a part of it, which is important,” said Ward of a refreshing new approach he could take because of his familiarity with the group.
“We were able to have really effective meetings about performance and where we needed to go with things. It led to an increased amount of leadership within our leadership core and guys not in that core.”
It led to success, which Ward feels the team can continue building toward if he’s brought back.
Predictably, Treliving wouldn’t comment on Ward’s future as head coach Monday, even though he said before the pause he’d seen enough from the 58-year-old to make his decision.
Ward refused to try pleading his case, but said he’d also consider returning next season as an assistant.
Some continue to insist the team should deviate from its history of spending very little money on coaches by hiring the likes of a Bruce Boudreau, Mike Babcock, Gerard Gallant or Peter Laviolette.
For a GM who has already gone through four coaches, it would be a tough sell to ask ownership to spend upwards of $3 million a year on a bench boss in the economic situation the province and league are in.
Unnecessary and certainly not guaranteed to motivate players any further.
Ward was successful in that vein, and while he may not have the cachet those others may have, he has the respect and ear of this team.
He earned it.
Sure, hindsight proves Ward erred by pulling playoff MVP Cam Talbot early in the second period of a rapidly deteriorating 3-3 game that ultimately ended the team’s playoff.
He reiterated Monday he would do it again, explaining the plan was to “regroup” Talbot on the bench for a few minutes before returning him to the game. When Talbot disappeared down the tunnel for 10 minutes to calm down, David Rittich was in over his head and the game was soon out of reach.
In an effort to “protect” his goalie, he suggested post-game Talbot had an equipment issue.
Not so. Lesson learned.
“I thought he did a great job stepping in,” said Bennett of Ward.
“He’s a great leader and a great motivator. He’s a really positive guy. He does a really good job of interacting with the guys and connecting with them on a personal level.”
Lucic agreed, praising Ward for rejuvenating him after contemplating retirement in November.
“I felt like I contributed, and I didn’t feel that way for a long time,” said Lucic, who spent many years working with Ward in Boston.
“I was contributing with my play, I was contributing with the person that I am, as a teammate, as a friend, as a leader and as a player. That was one of the things that made me feel good about myself again and I credit the coaching staff and my teammates for that.”
Time for the team to reward Ward accordingly.