On paper, everything looked to be in favour of the Calgary Flames last season. After coming off of a surprising run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 and comfortably finishing atop the toughest division in the nhl in 2006, the Flames found an impressive winning formula built around hard work and defensive grit.
The expectations were high as Calgary was poised for their best march towards a championship since the late '80s, but something went awry along the way. The Flames floundered over the course of the season, finishing far under their capabilities and barely squeaking into the playoffs at eigth place, only one point ahead of the Colorado Avalanche. Things didn't get any better in the post-season, as Calgary was embarrassed in the opening round at the hands of the hated Detroit Red Wings and quickly eliminated from Cup contention.
It's commonplace for fans, after an undesired season for their beloved team, to demand that the coach's head be severed from his body, placed on a pike and paraded about the village in a celebratory manner. While it didn't happen to that extreme, bench-boss Jim Playfair was ultimately demoted back to his position of associate coach from the season prior, making way for his replacement and new Calgary head coach, the infamous Mike Keenan.
Coaches aren't always deserving of the burden of blame placed upon them. As history has shown, many acclaimed coaches get the boot for simply not being able to turn a poor squad of players into a contender, but Playfair couldn't have been more deserving of his relegation and blame for the poor season. Despite being the most dominant team in the league on home ice last season, at 30-9-2, the Flames played like utter shite on the road, finishing 13-20-8. The strong ensemble of players looked unmotivated and lazy on the road early on in the season and that trend never improved. Considering it's a coach's job to ensure that a team plays to its full potential and stays focused at all times, it would be hard to argue that Playfair earned any paychecks he received.
The question now, concerning the upcoming season, is how well will his replacement fare? Keenan's welcome has been mired with mixed emotions, and for good reason. His winning record speaks volumes, appearing in four Stanley Cup finals as a coach and currently sitting fifth in all-time wins. However, there is no coach in the nhl with a more notorious reputation for being hated than the one Iron Mike has accumulated over the years. He takes his "tough love" approach to player relations, refusal to accept failure as an option and scrutiny of even the smallest mistakes way overboard and there have been many players who were driven crazy by his drill sergeant-like coaching methods over the years
Despite the criticisms against him, Keenan's tough-as-nails persona could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Calgary. After all, it worked wonders for Darryl Sutter. In 2004 Sutter took a generally underwhelming blend of players and enforced a gritty, no-nonsense, hard-working style of play on the team. The Keenan-esque formula was staggeringly successful as the newfound mentality made up for the Flames' shortcomings in talent, leading to three huge playoff upsets and a finals birth. Keenan's achieved his greatest coaching successes--the '85 and '87 Flyers, and '92 Blackhawks--on teams similar to that of the 2004 Flames and by the exact same coaching means. The similarities between Sutter and Keenan are plentiful. If anything, Sutter is Keenan Lite. Sutter even learned his coaching style directly from Keenan when he spent two years as an assistant coach under Keenan's menacing Chicago Blackhawks in the early '90s. After the Playfair fiasco I don't think anyone wouldn't love to have Sutter back, so getting the coach who mentored and influenced him can only be a step in the right direction.
While the transition to playing under Iron Mike's iron fist won't be a smooth one at first--forward Kristian Huselius no doubt remembers being publicly called out for his poor work ethic by Keenan and eventually traded, when both were with the Panthers only two seasons ago--all the signs point to the Promised Land for the Flames. The team has all the talent it needs to succeed, and the fear of being boiled in a vat of acid by an angry Keenan will provide more than enough motivation for everyone to stay focused, which was horribly lacking with pushover Playfair in charge. He may strike fear into the hearts of his players, but by the time this season is over, Keenan's Flames will strike fear into the hearts of the entire nhl.