Six things we’ve learned about Ryan Huska in six weeks as head coach

Younger players are getting ice time and communication has been key with Flames head coach Ryan Huska

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We’re officially six weeks into the Calgary Flames’ 2023-24 season.

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That means we’re also six weeks into Ryan Huska’s first stint as an NHL head coach.

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After months of speculation over the summer about what a Huska-coached Flames team might look like, it feels like it’s probably been long enough for us to start drawing some tentative conclusions.

And as the Flames prepare to return to the ice Friday against the Stars in Dallas, here’s a half-dozen things we’ve learned about Huska so far:

Youth gets a chance

This one’s pretty obvious for anyone who has been paying attention, but Huska has stayed true to his promise that there would be opportunities for young players who earn their spots.

It’s not just that guys like Connor Zary and Martin Pospisil are on the roster, it’s that they are being used in key situations because they deserve to be there.

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In Zary’s very first game, he was out on the ice in the dying minutes of the Flames’ loss to the Dallas Stars on Nov. 1, entrusted with trying to create the goal that would salvage a point.

Pospisil started his NHL journey on the Flames’ third line three days later, but was quickly bumped up to the team’s second grouping alongside Zary and Nazem Kadri after he proved he could produce.

Martin Pospisil
New York Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin, left, tries to stop Calgary Flames forward Martin Pospisil from scoring during first period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. Photo by Jeff McIntosh /The Canadian Press

Remember, too, that Matthew Coronato’s strong pre-season led to him getting significant power-play time in the early days of the season. He’s been sent to the Calgary Wranglers for some AHL seasoning, but was given a solid taste of life in the NHL in 10 games to start the year.

Everyone’s expecting Jakob Pelletier to play a big role when he recovers from a shoulder injury and returns to action in the New Year, and while Nick DeSimone isn’t necessarily young, the defenceman has earned an extended shot this year.

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In a league that seems to be getting younger by the day, Huska has shown he’s more than willing to give youth a chance and then reward them with more ice time when they deserve it.

Playing time’s not guaranteed

Huska has also shown a willingness to take away playing time when players aren’t producing.

This occurred most notably in the Flames’ 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators, when the Flames head coach benched Jonathan Huberdeau for the entire third period.

“I thought Huby had an off-night,” Huska said at the time. “We wanted to try and get a little more flow and we went with the guys we felt were going and that’s pretty much all it came down to.”

With a $10.5-million annual contract, Huberdeau is the Flames’ most expensive player, so it was a big deal to sit him.

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Jonathan Huberdeau
Jonathan Huberdeau #10 of the Calgary Flames shoots and scores a powerplay goal against the Seattle Kraken during the first period at Climate Pledge Arena on November 20, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

But Huberdeau is far from alone. We’ll get into the way he shuffles lines later, but veterans have found themselves seeing their ice time cut down with some regularity. Guys like Dillon Dube and Adam Ruzicka have bounced from the first line to reduced roles, for example.

He’s been patient with players who are slumping but what’s clear is that with Huska behind the bench, every player has to earn the right to play big minutes.

It’s worth noting, too, that Huska played Huberdeau big minutes earlier this week when he was hot against the Seattle Kraken. Huberdeau got 21:34 of ice time on Monday, the most by any winger on the Flames all season.

This goes both ways.

Communication is key

If we go back to Huberdeau’s benching, it’s sort of remarkable that the story came and went as quickly as it did.

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The player himself deserves credit for the way he handled it, but when he spoke with the media the next day he also hinted at an open line of dialogue with his head coach being vital.

“It was a coaching decision and you move on from it,” Huberdeau said. “Me and (Huska) talked it out and I think there’s no pointing fingers.”

Again and again, we’ve heard about the constant conversations being had between Huska’s coaching staff and the players. We’re not taking shots at former head coach Darryl Sutter here, but that’s not something we heard much about last year.

Huska has to make tough decisions. But explaining those decisions and talking through them with the players seems to be a big part of who he is as a coach.

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Mix and match lines

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Huska, it’s that he doesn’t hesitate to switch it up when things aren’t working.

Whether it’s in-between games or during the flow of play, Huska has shown a willingness to change who is playing with who.

There are some who question whether a little more patience might be beneficial, and maybe there’s some truth to that, who knows?

He seems to have found some connections recently with Pospisil, Zary and Nazem Kadri producing at a nice clip and then Huberdeau finding chemistry with Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman. There’s no telling how long those lines will last, but they’ve been consistent for a few games, at least.

Otherwise, though, it feels like everybody has pretty much played with everybody else. The Flames are mixing and matching and seeing what sticks.
Maybe that will change as the season progresses and we get a better idea of the team’s best line pairings, but in the early days Huska hasn’t waited to make changes when something doesn’t seem to be working the way he wants.

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Nazem Kadri celebrates a goal with the Flames
Nazem Kadri #91 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his goal with teammates on the bench during the second period against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 14, 2023 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Work in progress

There was a lot of talk throughout training camp about the Flames’ switch from playing man-defence to zone.

The results have been … mixed, so far.

The Flames are allowing an average of 3.37 goals per game so far this season, which is good for only the 22nd-best mark in the NHL.

There’s been improvement, though. In their nine games in October, the Flames were allowing 3.67 goals per game.

In their 10 games so far in November, that’s come down to 3.10 goals-against-per-game.

They’ve been getting solid goaltending, no doubt, but that’s a significant improvement.

New York Islanders forward Bo Horvat, left, has his shot kicked away by Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Saturday
New York Islanders forward Bo Horvat, left, has his shot kicked away by Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. Photo by Jeff McIntosh /The Canadian Press

They need to get better, though. The Flames haven’t won a single game this season in which their opponent has scored more than three goals. A couple have gone to shootouts, but those have still ultimately resulted in the other team picking up two points, not the Flames.

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There’s been steady improvement in the defensive zone, but it hasn’t been perfect.

The tough conversations

It’s quieted down now, but there was a stretch there where it felt like there was a lot of noise swirling around the Flames.

Between the looming free-agency of a bunch of key players, a trade request from Nikita Zadorov and various other reports it just all sort of felt like a lot.

That’s when Huska stepped in.

Here’s how Flames captain Mikael Backlund explained it.

“I talked to one or two guys and then I talked to Husk, and Husk addressed everything in the room, in front of everyone,” Backlund said. “I thought it was important. Me and Husk discussed it and we felt that him speaking in front of the whole team was going to be enough. He said some good things and after that, we just turned the page. Everyone knows what had happened, and now we’re just focused on playing games and keeping the distractions out.”

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Mikael Backlund
Mikael Backlund #11 of the Calgary Flames celebrates an empty-net goal against the Seattle Kraken during the third period at Climate Pledge Arena on November 4, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

That’s what you want from a coach, right? As an organization, the Flames have some big decisions to make about their direction going into the future. That happens for every team at one point or another.

But the outside noise doesn’t help the on-ice product, and Huska’s job is to keep the team focused on the task at hand.

By all accounts, he’s done a solid job there.

daustin@postmedia.com

X: @DannyAustin_9

Wes Gilbertson and Danny Austin have been covering the Flames for years and know what makes the team tick. Have questions? They have the answers – or the contacts to track them down. Send your questions to calgaryflames@postmedia.com

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