Eventually it became a matter of when Greg Gilbert would be fired, not if.
And four games into a disastrous road trip that saw the team go 0-4 and slip further and further down the Western Conference standings, Craig Button and Ken King finally pulled the trigger in an attempt to salvage the final three quarters of the season. Perhaps the only real surprise is that assistant coach Brad McCrimmon was also sent packing—likely due to his failure to execute the league's worst powerplay.
The question is; where does the team go from here? In the interim, Brian Skrudland and Al MacNeil will be heading up the bench
but this is clearly a temporary situation. Skrudland has never been a head coach at any level before, and MacNeil in all likelihood doesn't want to get back to coaching full time. MacNeil's career coaching record is 134-108-53. He was the head coach for the Flames for three seasons, from 1979 to 1982 before being replaced by "Badger" Bob Johnson and also spent time as an assistant coach from 1998 to 2000. Last December he took a turn behind the bench following Greg Gilbert's suspension after the Anaheim fiasco.
Jim Playfair: The most logical choice, if the Calgary Flames don't promote him to the head coaching position he will likely find work in the NHL this summer. In his first full year coaching in the AHL he led the Saint John Flames to the Calder Cup and has a record of 81-59-22-10 in two-and-a-quarter seasons with the Baby Flames. Before that, he was an interim coach for Michigan in the IHL, compiling an 18-14-9 record. He was also head coach of the Dayton Bombers (ECHL) for three seasons, posting a 106-76-24 record for a .573 winning percentage.
Pros- There would be little to no adjustment period with the hiring of Playfair. He already knows close to half the players (and might even be able to light a fire under Saprykin at the NHL level) and he already knows the system that's been put in use by the Flames. He's also a proven winner within the organization and coaches an X's and O's style that would be a benefit to the team; Saint John has a powerplay in the top ten in the AHL.
Cons- Playfair has no experience at the NHL level and has never had to deal
with NHL-sized egos before. Don Hay is also a great coach below the NHL
level but his inability to deal with NHL personalities did him in.
Darryl Sutter: Just recently fired from the San Jose Sharks, the choice of Sutter comes to mind when you consider he's from Alberta and has a knack for making his players accountable. He's never had a great amount of success in the NHL but his teams have always been competitive and difficult to play against.
Pros- The issue of the team's lack of work ethic in recent games would be solved.
Cons- Coaches with a "work harder" philosophy but not much beyond that. When that doesn't work, his solution is for the team to work even harder. At the NHL level you need more than lunch bucket hockey to be successful as a coach.
Kevin Constantine: Has had success virtually everywhere he's been as a head coach, through San Jose, Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Also has one of the top winning percentages all-time among IHL coaches.
Pros- Coaches a strong defensive game and has a no-nonsense attitude. Has taken teams with little talent, such as Pittsburgh and San Jose and take them into the playoffs with reasonable success. Has lived and coached in Calgary before so is familiar with the organization.
Cons- The offensive game of teams he coaches suffers due to the focus on the defensive side of things. Wears out his welcome in a hurry oftentimes and has been known to run players out of town.
Ron Wilson: A very different style of coach from the above mentioned. Wilson broke into the league as Anaheim's head coach in 1993 and moved on to Washington in 1998. He has experience working with teams of limited talent as well as teams full of talent. If hired, he would bring in results right away but for how long?
Pros- He has a good short-term impact on the teams he coaches. When things are going well—as they did in his first year coaching both Anaheim and Washington—the players have fun playing the system and surprising other teams with unorthodox coaching tactics.
Cons- With the exception of Washington's improbable Cup run in 1998 and Anaheim's expansion season, when has he ever coached a team above expectations? His teams in Anaheim consistently underachieved before his players finally quit on him. In Washington he had an unlimited budget to work with and couldn't get the team in the playoffs.
Larry Robinson: Larry Robinson is still on the open market after taking himself out of a strange situation in New Jersey (fired, then brought back as an assistant).
Pros- If you believe in the "follow up a taskmaster with a player's coach" mentality, Robinson is a good fit for Calgary. His star-studded career would surely give him the ear of each and every Flame player.
Cons- Money and motive. Can the Flames afford to bring in a coach with the marquee label of Robinson? If they could would he want to take a job in Calgary under these circumstances?
The reality of the Gilbert situation is, aside from a remarkable 13-2-2-2 run he was the worst coach in terms of winning percentage in Flames history—that includes Atlanta. At the start of the 2001-02 season, Gilbert had the team firing on all cylinders. Not only was his system working, he also had three players in Craig Conroy, Jarome Iginla and Roman Turek all playing well above their heads helping carry the team to the league's second-best record. From that point on, everything just collapsed.
Iginla and Conroy continued to play well but Roman Turek has never regained the form we saw in the first quarter of the 2001-02 season. Coupled with the fact that Gilbert was unable to adapt his coaching strategy and the team started to falter. Factor in Iginla and Conroy's drop in production this season and suddenly the Calgary Flames have become a recipe for disaster.
Was Greg Gilbert truly at fault for the demise of this team or were expectations set too high in October and November 2001? The truth is, he had to be held accountable. Even though it was the players in the end who failed to execute the game plan well on a regular basis, Gilbert managed to get any players who dissented with the system eventually run out of town. Players such as Marc Savard, Derek Morris, Cory Stillman and Valeri Bure among others. What he had was a dressing room full of players who were definitely on-side with his coaching style and he still couldn't win at anything better than a .400 clip (29-54-15-4 excluding the 13-2-2-2 run).
The onus is on the players now. They have run out of excuses. Generally, once a coach is fired, if a team continues to perform below expectations the next thing the general manager has to resort to is moving personnel. You can be assured that another long stretch with a losing record will result in the core of this team being gutted as the rebuilding process starts all over again.
Starting tonight in Colorado, the Flames will be under the microscope. Every player—Jarome Iginla included—will be evaluated by management and upper-management and deemed worthy to be part of the latest "fresh start."