Flames Mailbag: Should GM and coach hires be external or internal candidates?

Sportsnet 960's Pat Steinberg returns to discuss potential candidates to fill the GM role with the Calgary Flames. He also shares his thoughts on the future of Darryl Sutter.

We knew this summer had the chance to be busy for the Calgary Flames and that’s exactly how things are playing out. General manager Brad Treliving stepped away less than a week after Calgary’s disappointing regular season ended. Exactly two weeks later, the Flames announced the firing of head coach Darryl Sutter.

Now, less than a month into the 2023 offseason, the Flames have two crucial vacancies open and all kinds of questions to answer. We get into a lot of those questions in this edition of our mailbag.

Let’s focus this on the general manager job. Current AGM Craig Conroy is the hometown favourite to replace Treliving, now more than 12 years into his front office career with the Flames. Fellow assistant Brad Pascall is also a candidate after running the team’s AHL affiliate the past nine seasons. Calgary’s top feeder was the AHL’s number one team this season, which followed up a trip to the league’s final four the year prior. Detroit’s Shawn Horcoff, Dallas’s Rich Peverley, and Carolina’s Eric Tulsky are among the external names we’ve heard right from the get-go. More recently, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman added London Knights general manager Mark Hunter to the fray and told Flames Talk earlier this week he’s a “potentially serious contender”. There are undoubtedly other external names in this conversation, too.

Conroy has touched every part of the organization, and successfully, since joining Calgary’s front office in early 2011. He’s scouted in North America and Europe, done contracts, spent a season in charge of the AHL team, and has even been involved on the business side.

More recently, Conroy has been focused on junior and college free agents, which has been a team strength. Connor Mackey, now with Arizona, and newly re-signed Walker Duehr are both recent examples of Conroy’s handiwork in that area. Conroy has also been heavily involved in the NHL Draft, another area the Flames have done well in, even with a limited number of picks in recent years.

“I get to work with (director of amateur scouting Tod Button) and his staff,” Conroy told me a while back. “I probably do about 35 to 40 of the top guys that we like. Really get in there and see those guys, which is fun. And that’s how you make your biggest strides in the organization.”

Conroy has been groomed for a GM job and finished runner-up in Buffalo a few years ago. The resume is strong, the dues have been paid, and there’s an association with Calgary that dates back more than 20 years. He seems like a great choice for all kinds of reasons.

The part of the question I want to focus on here is the order in which the Flames will, and should, make their hires. The general manager search is underway, and it sounds like interviews for potential candidates are coming soon.

Once a GM is hired, the focus will turn to securing a head coach. I know teams don’t always follow the same path, but this order is the most sensible way to go about things and the way Calgary is going to handle their business.

“That to me is an absolute must,” President of Hockey Operations Don Maloney told Flames Talk earlier this week. “To go out and hire a coach and then turn around and hire a manager is just incongruous, it doesn’t make sense.

“I think the manager has to be involved, engaged, (and) endorsing the person that’s come in. Just to have a relationship. If we hire a coach two weeks from now and a manager four weeks from now…and what happens if all of a sudden the personalities don’t mesh? I think that’s just a recipe for disaster, I don’t think it ever works, and that’s not going to happen here.”

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While an important discussion for another time, we’ll skip over the ranch dressing part. But I do think it’s fascinating, both at head coach and GM, to discuss the merits of hiring internally as opposed to looking outside the organization. I think there are fair arguments on both sides.

Following one of the most frustrating seasons in franchise history, you can understand those who are in favour of bringing in fresh voices. On the other hand, there are many who believe the Flames were a good team that simply underachieved this year and keeping some organizational continuity is the way to go.

I lean towards the latter. Calgary has gone through too many coaches over the past decade, so promoting someone from within helps bridge the gap after Sutter’s departure. And, with a few big contracts in place and big decisions to make with players soon to be on expiring contracts, someone with significant familiarity with the organization would be an asset.

This is a great question and underlines one of the most important priorities for the Flames this summer: unlocking a much more effective Jonathan Huberdeau.

Year one in Calgary was a nightmare for Huberdeau, which included a drop from 115 to 55 points season over season. With a franchise record eight-year, $84 million contract kicking in this season, that can’t happen again.

Part one of getting more out of Huberdeau was Monday’s firing of Sutter. There’s no question player and coach butted heads this year and Huberdeau didn’t hold back when talking to BPM Sports in Quebec earlier this week. Huberdeau was blunt in saying he and Sutter didn’t click, the team’s style didn’t suit him, and having a new coach will help his confidence.

As for someone who suits Huberdeau, one of the first names that comes to mind is the guy who coached him during his career 2021-22 season in Florida.

“I would expect they’d reach out to Andrew Brunette,” Friedman told us Monday. “If you want someone to coach Huberdeau up, you can’t go wrong with a guy who helped coach him to 115 points last year. So I’m sure he’ll be a call.”

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