Hiring an NHL coach can be an inexact science – and for proof, you don't need to go any further than examining the work history of Mike Sullivan, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship this past Sunday.
From the time he was fired from his first NHL head-coaching job with the Boston Bruins until he resurfaced to run the Penguins, Sullivan spent nine years trying to get his foot back in the door, without much luck.
Getting back on that NHL coaching carousel can be likened to a giant game of snakes and ladders for any young coach if his first opportunity ends in failure. You practically need to start over and convince an organization that what you learned the first time around makes you far more equipped to handle the challenges the next chance you get.
And so we come to the latest NHL coaching hire, Glen Gulutzan officially appointed to the position of Calgary Flames' head coach Friday morning, the last coaching vacancy to be filled in a busy off-season of changes.
Just as Sullivan went back to reset his career path as an NHL assistant (mostly alongside John Tortorella during his various stops), Gulutzan spent the past three years working for the Vancouver Canucks as an assistant, one year with Tortorella and Sullivan, the next two with Willie Desjardins (who once worked for Gulutzan in the AHL).
The hope in Calgary is that Gulutzan, like Sullivan, can take advantage of being older, wiser and smarter the second time around.
"When you're a [NHL] head coach, it's trial by fire," said Gulutzan, who was only two years removed from coaching Las Vegas of the ECHL when he got a chance to coach the Dallas Stars in 2011. "I can write you a long list of what I know I did well – and what I would change – but at the end of the day, the biggest thing is experience. In Dallas, I had Jamie [Benn] as a young superstar – and Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney as older players – all those guys teach you something about the league and the game.
"I would say it's like going to university and becoming an engineer. They'll all tell you, 'I went to school for four years and studied my tail off, but I realized when I got out of there that I didn't know a thing about building a building until I got on the site.' You can't replace experience, and these last five years have given me a good base in the National Hockey League."
Gulutzan's career trajectory is similar to that of his new boss, Flames' general manager Brad Treliving. Both played junior for the Brandon Wheat Kings, Gulutzan arriving the year after Treliving left.
Neither ever emerged too far out of the deep minor leagues as players. Accordingly, they had to work their way up the ranks – and convince people of their ability and worth – every step along the way.
"It's a great experience to come from the bottom," Gulutzan said, "because it teaches you to work. I think maybe that's part of the connection [with Treliving] because you're coming from the same place.
"I see the game a lot the way he sees the game."
In Calgary, Gulutzan will inherit a team with a strong nucleus of young position players, and two big question marks in goal, a shortcoming Treliving has promised to address.
The Flames missed the playoffs last season, finishing fifth out of seven teams in the NHL's Pacific Division with 77 points, a 20-point year-over-year drop that ultimately cost Hartley his job. But Calgary had the NHL's No. 7 overall scorer, second-year forward Johnny Gaudreau, and a deep collection of defencemen – Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton – all of whom scored above 40 points last season and can really move the puck.
Until Sullivan ended in the winner's circle this year, the past six championships were won by experienced long-time coaches: Joel Quenneville with Chicago, Darryl Sutter with Los Angeles and Claude Julien in Boston. Before them, it was Dan Bylsma – who, like Sullivan, was another mid-season coaching replacement in Pittsburgh and presided over the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup triumph.
Accordingly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question: What makes an NHL coach successful? Or to the logical follow-up: How do you even measure success in a 30-team league, where only one team annually gets to celebrate with the Stanley Cup?
"The bottom line is becoming a playoff team and having a chance to compete in the spring each year," Treliving said. "But there are steps you have to take along the way, a process that starts with making players better. How do you do that? To me, it's connecting with players, and being able to push them. There are ways you can do it in the short term, and there are ways to do it that have substance over time.
"This is a hard league; any coach can come in and step on people. That's easy, but the only reason you're getting a push is the player's mad at you. Maybe that works for a time. But to get the ultimate push, for the longer term, you're doing things for the right reason. 'I want to make you better. I want us to win. I think there's more there for you to give.' It's not unlike being a parent.
"I think, he's a great communicator and today, that's what you need. Like it or not, this is the 'why?' generation. Players want to know why they're doing it; and how does that help me get better? He [Gulutzan] can give you the why and the how."