Thursday, June 14, 2007

Farewell Playfair

So it looks like the Keenan hiring is all but a sure thing. Talk around the water-cooler today is that the Flames will make an announcement during an afternoon press conference today.

There are a number of issues to be dealt with concerning this rather startling turn of events. First I'd like to say I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't see this coming: during his tenure as the Flames GM, Sutter has proven he likes to make sudden moves out of left field (Tanguay trade, Conroy trade, Stuart trade) and he tends to target guys that have a "Sutter connection". Think Nilson, Huselius, Kiprusoff and Friesen. With all that in mind, and considering Sutter was previously an assistant coach to Keenan back in his Blackhawk days, this move shouldn't actually be that surprising.

Course, many of us thought the (rather divisive) issue of Playfair as coach had been largely settled. Not through any direct information yielded from the organization, but more through the "no news is good news" rationale. I was personally certain for about 2 weeks after the first round humiliation that Playfair would be promptly drawn and quartered and the team would go about looking for his replacement poste haste.

My condemnation of Playfair is not a knee-jerk reaction to the disappointing round 1 loss. I was loudly questioning his abilities as far back as February. And the same issues I was harping on then - questionable roster decisions, terrible road performance, lack of consistency, lack of cohesion - proved to be the team's undoing in the post-season. In fact, not only were the aforementioned failings still evident come April, they were magnified and exploited by a comparable roster and a superior coach.

I wrote the above in a round one series review piece back in April. I think the best thing about this turn of events is the vindication I feel as a Playfair doubter. Upon the season's disappointing conclusion, Flames fans were split neatly down the center when it came to Playfair's performance and future as the head coach. Some pointed to the Flames increased offensive output, great home record and 40 win season as evidence of Playfair's ability. Others, like myself, saw a team that was inconsistent (besides being consistently awful on the road) and barely made the play-offs, despite boasting a roster that was considered a Stanley Cup contender before Nervous Jimmy got his sweaty little hands on it. Being soundly outplayed in the post-season by Detroit was the final, most resounding indictment of his coaching in my estimation.

I think two things truly doomed ol' Canaryshirt: the team's "bell-curve" fashion of success during his reign and the player-to-GM exit interviews.

By bell-curve, I mean The Flames went from very bad-to-bad-to-good-to-great-to-bad-to-very-bad again as the season progressed. The team peaked sometime in mid January and then sank headlong in the morass ever after. Even with the firming up of the roster with the acquisitions of Conroy and Stuart in February, Playfair couldn't seem to evoke a consistent, cohesive effort from his troops down the stretch or in the post-season. This was a portent of ill-tidings for Jimmy because it didn't suggest continual improvement: had the Flames ended with the similar record that was gathered through a different slope of success, a straight line of bad to good to very good, one may have reasonably extrapolated potential for success next year. However, as noted in the quote above, the Flames were downright terrible in April and during their first round series ejection at the hands of the Red Wings. The team got worse as the year wore on and they folded completely when the going got tough. Considering the roster of veterans, past-winners and a handful of genuine Stars and Superstars, it find it sensible to look past the players to the man behind the bench for answers. Further, with next season being marked by contract years for Iginla, Langkow, Kipper, Regehr and Huselius, the organization can hardly afford to grant Playfair the time and space to adequately "find himself" as the bench boss. With the lack of demonstrable improvement which would have enabled Sutter to project a decent chance of success under Playfair in the near future, I think the GM's hand was forced on this matter.

Secondly, and this is just speculation, but something in me thinks some Player/coach issues came to light during the man-to-man talks Sutter held at the conclusion of 06/07. It's no secret guys like Amonte and Friesen weren't all that happy under Playfair's rule. In addition, player management was one of things that irked me about Nervous Jimmy: he seemed to wield the "discipline stick" in a near arbitrary fashion. A similar mistake committed by two different players would yield vastly different punishments. Some vets seemed to to have the run of the bench while rookies and younger player were held to task for even nominal missteps. Rhett Warrener was prefered over Mark Giordano, even though the former was frequently injured to the point of being ineffectual...

etc. etc. All that, combined with his deer-in-the-headlights demeanor on the bench may have eroded the players confidence and respect in Playfair. Add to the fact that he used to be "good cop" under Sutter in the dressing room and it's probably sensible to infer that the boys didn't take "Sutter lite" very seriously.

And so enter "Iron Mike" Keenan. Captain Hook. Keenan has a decent resume if you throw out his time in Florida. And Vancouver I guess. He's gone to the finals a number of times (once with Sutter in Chicago) and won a cup with the Rangers. He's known for his abrasive attitude and hard-ass approach when it comes to dealing with players. He's also known to have a fairly brief shelf-life thanks to the aforementioned proclivities. This suggests that 1.) Sutter thinks the players need to be kicked in the ass (ie; need someone they will be forced to respect) and 2.) Sutter thinks this team can win NOW. As mentioned, the Flames have one more year with all of Iginla, Kipper and Regehr. Making a strong play for next season makes sense.

I've slept on it and I'm still undecided as to whether Keenan is the right choice. I haven't really seen the fruits of his labor for years thanks to his banishment to the South East. In addition, he hasn't really won anything in a long-time either. Further, Kristian Huselius struggled mightily under Keenan's rule in Florida - now that he's a significant piece of the Flames puzzle, will he be given the same treatment by Keenan a second time? How will Lombo respond to Keenan's "tough love" approach? On the one hand, Iron Mike does look like the kind of coach the team needed last season: someone with a powerful will and presence that could fill Sutter's void in the dressing room. There are questions as to whether Keenan still has it in him to guide a team to victory anymore, however. I'm also unsure as to whether his domineering personality will bring the team in-line or simply cause an even greater dissolution of the dressing room.

For his part, Juice has already gone on record in Sweden saying he isn't too worried about playing under Keenan again. Course, his tune may change pretty quickly if Iron Mike starts screaming at him on the bench and reducing his ice-time to minimal levels. I can only hope this is not the case come October and beyond.

In the end, I am cautiously optimistic about the change. I didn't like Playfair as a coach and was dreading another season wasted under his guidance. With Keenan, there are a lot of question marks, but I think there's a greater probability of success. Playfair had clearly lost the dressing room by the end of the year and I'm not sure my fanship could have survived another season of Canaryshirt's chin-twiddling and lip chewing. In fact, part of me is looking forward to Keenan erupting in anger the first time the team plays like hung-over Frat boys on the road. It'll be a welcome change for me and, I think, a needed change for the players.

PS - It sounds like Playfair will be demoted back to his previous position as assistant coach rather than released outright. Confirmation will likely come during the anticipated press conference. I think that's the right move as well.