The Calgary Flames are in the news as they announced yesterday in a statement released by General Manager Darryl Sutter that "Iron" Mike Keenan would not be back as Head Coach next season. It is a move that surprised many, including Keenan. After their playoff loss to Chicago, Keenan made this comment, "I have another year left on my contract. My expectation is to be here to fulfill my contract."
GM Sutter stated at the end of the season that a complete review of the team would be done from top to bottom as he tried to evaluate what happened to his team. The Flames led the Northwest Division for much of the season, only to see a late season collapse drop them to a fifth place finish in the Western Conference and a first round exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL playoffs. Injuries were certainly a factor, as was a seven game road trip in March while the Brier occupied the Saddledome but Sutter placed the blame on his coach and the lack of preparation in key areas.
"Our team did not meet expectations. Following detailed evaluation over the past three weeks, and taking into consideration all factors affecting our season ending result, we believe this is a necessary change required to allow our team to continue toward our objective of winning the Stanley Cup." - From the statement released by the Flames, available at the team's web site.
Keenan's Contract May Have Been Deciding Factor
When Sutter considered all the factors, Iron Mike's contract may have been his downfall. A coach or GM with one year remaining on their contract is usually considered a "lame duck". It is difficult to make a trade as a GM with only one year left on a contract and equally difficult to enforce your will on players as a coach in his final year. If Sutter wanted Keenan back next year, a contract extension would have to be in the works. If their were doubts after this season, could the Flames afford to be paying Keenan for several years if the Flames had a slow start and Keenan was fired next November? The best solution for Sutter in these trying economic times was to cut Keenan loose now and allow a new coach the summer to implement a new game plan.
Excuse or not, March was the Killer Month
Keenan's style of coaching had to be a contributing factor. The once fiery coach had seemed to tone things down in Calgary, perhaps too much. A firm believer that his star players can overcome difficulties if given time, he rarely practises the power play during the season. Calgary finished the regular season on a zero for 42 skid on the power play. A goal here or there could have meant first in the Northwest and starting the playoffs at home. Instead, they found themselves in the rejuvenated United Center in Chicago in front of twenty-three thousand Blackhawks fans.
The month of March was trouble for the Flames. As the Brier rolled into town, the Flames were sent on a lengthy seven game road trip that did not start or end well. The last home game before the trip was an 8-6 loss to Tampa Bay and the final game of the trip that saw them add Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline was an 8-6 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After the lockout, Calgary was the best team in the NHL in the goals-against category. In Keenan's first season in Calgary, the team fell to 15th in the category. This season saw the team fall to 23rd in goals-against. A category that could not be ignored by Sutter. When Mika Kiprusoff is your goaltender and you are that far down the list on the defensive side of the ice, something is not clicking.
What's Next for Iron Mike?
The Flames will hold a press conference on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the firing but the question of who will be the next coach is already a hot topic. I have to agree with TSN's Bob McKenzie, either Calgary Hitmen coach Dave Lowry will move in behind the bench or it will be a Sutter - Darryl resumes his duties behind the bench or brother Brent makes a move from New Jersey to Calgary if Devils GM Lou Lamoriello voids the final year of his contract.
So have we seen the last of Iron Mike Keenan? The Flames were the eighth coaching job in the NHL for the native of Bowmanville, Ontario and he is fourth on the all-time wins list with 672 victories. He is only twenty wins behind third place Dick Irvin Sr. but well behind Scotty Bowman's 1,244 victories. Keenan was Coach of the Year with Philadelphia in 1985 and was an AHL Champion with the Rochester Americans in the 1982-83 season. Of course, he was a Stanley Cup winner in 1994 with the New York Rangers but many believe that had more to do with Mark Messier then Keenan's coaching.
After stops in Philly, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Florida and Calgary, Keenan's next stop may be TSN or Hockey Night in Canada. It seems unlikely that another team will hire him before the start of next season but as his resume illustrates, you can never count out Iron Mike. Unfortunately, like “Coach” Benjamin Wade on this season’s Survivor, sometimes the blindside comes when you least expect it. Have a great sports day everyone