Whenever the Calgary Flames are set to reconvene, they’ll be welcomed back by a coach with a slightly different approach to the team’s game plan.
Much like he did leading up to the playoffs, he’ll emphasize defence above all else.
But it will come with a wrinkle, as he believes an increased focus on preventing goals will lead to scoring even more of them.
“We’re going to ask all of our top players to be very responsible away from puck, and that means different things for different guys,” said Geoff Ward, ready to further spread his wings after having the interim tag lifted after the playoffs.
“Almost like what Tampa did. They understood they needed to be a harder team to play against. Listening to Coop (coach Jon Cooper) in interviews and through the playoffs, he really challenged his top-end guys to change the way that they play to be a better team. What it meant was they couldn’t be offence all the time. Going through what they went through (a first round humiliation two years ago) I think they made a real good analysis in terms of where their team needed to go to be a champion. They made those adjustments.
“For us it’s not unlike that at all. We’ve got to really get buy-in from our best players to step up and make changes we need to make in order to move from early contending team to a serious contending team on the way to a championship.”
The Flames’ defensive play was markedly better in the playoffs, reflecting the coach’s revamped approach, which he started implementing during the pandemic pause. It was an amazing transformation for a team that appeared to understand what it takes to win in the post-season.
“I think we want to play exactly how we played in the playoffs,” said Ward, who debated long and hard when he’d start implementing style changes after taking over from Bill Peters.
“We felt like we had enough time during the pause to prepare our guys. We sent out instructional videos and video play books on how we wanted to play differently in defensive-zone coverage and tracking, and what we wanted to do with our forecheck. When we came back to camp it was a matter of working those three things in practice.”
The team’s impressive intensity, physicality and attention to defensive detail were all on display in their disposal of Winnipeg in the play-in round, and in the first five games against Dallas before a Game 6 meltdown ended their bubble life.
The addition of Vezina-caliber goalie Jacob Markstrom should help the team bolster its ability to keep the puck out of the net, leading to what Ward believes will be more offensive chances.
“We’re not going to be a straight defensive team — when we have the puck, we want to transition quickly to the offensive side and try to score,” said Ward.
“We believe if we do that well, it will allow us to carry the puck more. We want to do an awful lot of things early with our line rush and encourage our defencemen to get going more on the rush and offensively in transition. We’re going to work on our quickness through the neutral zone and what we want to do offensively. We’re still going to review what we do defensively, but now we want to build the offensive foundation on top of it so when we get the puck we can be more dangerous and more quick-strike.”
Most of the Flames players transitioned well to the increased defensive responsibility and intensity asked of them in the playoffs.
One player who will be particularly interesting to watch in his ongoing development defensively is Johnny Gaudreau, who, to be fair, is paid to excel offensively.
“We’re not going to put any demands on him any different than anyone else,” said Ward, when asked of his expectations of his smallest and most creative forward.
“We want him to play to his strength as a player. But at the same point in time we need to understand as a team that if we can be a real strong defensive team, we’re going to get to play with the puck more. That will allow us to be a quick-strike type of offence and that should play into Johnny’s strengths.
“Molding the two styles of play together would be something he’ll enjoy, and hopefully that’s how it will work out. He’s a really good player and a big part of our team. The slate is clean for everyone coming in. The guys come in and the way they play, and how their attitude is, they will dictate themselves how much they can expand their role and where it goes.”
How the Flames respond to the coach’s new blueprint will dictate whether his team is able to continue progressing when it matters most — the playoffs.
“Going into last year, we went from being a winning team to learning what it took to be a contending team,” said Ward.
“I think we’ve gone from being an early contending team to now understanding what it takes to be a contending team. We’re moving from early contending status to strong contending status, on our way to being a championship team. We feel we’re ready to take that next step.”
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