Oilers' Glen Gulutzan on running NHL's most lethal power play, despite years of coaching turnover


EDMONTON — The NHL’s most lethal power play finally connected in a Game 4 demolition of the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.

It was just one goal and on a five-on-three. But they were due. And their hope now is that it leads to some power-play momentum for the rest of the Stanley Cup Final.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Edmonton Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl said after his team’s 8-1 thumping over the Panthers. “We’ve had lots of looks over the first four games. Certainly created enough to have a couple go in. But that’s not the way the game works sometimes.

“I’m proud of the way we always stick with it and continue to work at it and stay work-based,” added No. 29. “Yeah, hopefully we can build off that a little bit.”

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They stick with it because they believe in the coach handling the power play. Glen Gulutzan has been in charge of the Oilers’ man advantage for six years and his belief in his unit is unshakable. 

So when the Oilers started the Cup Final 0-for-10 in the opening three games, Gulutzan didn’t panic, because the looks were there.

“They don’t always go in at the same rate but you just stay the course if you are generating good looks,” Gulutzan said postgame Saturday night. “We need to string things along so the law of averages kicks in.

“They believe in the process here.”

And given the perennial success of said power play, it’s not hard to figure out why Gulutzan has stayed in place on the Oilers staff despite five head coaching changes in six years.

All of which has made him Connor McDavid’s most durable coaching relationship.

“Yeah, I’ve got a great relationship with Gully,” McDavid said earlier in the Cup Final. “He’s been the coach I’ve worked with the longest throughout my time in the NHL, for most of my career now. I’ve been with him for a long time and we’ve been through a lot together, just like the players have. He’s been great with the power play. Obviously it speaks for itself but he’s making sure everybody’s prepared, knows what their role is on the power play and their job is, and he’s very prepared. 

“He’s great at what he does,” added McDavid. “He’s a great coach and we’re lucky to have him here.”

Gulutzan joined the Oilers coaching staff before the 2018-19 season and has since worked under head coaches Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchcock, Dave Tippett, Jay Woodcroft and now Kris Knoblauch.

Five head coaches in six seasons, with Gulutzan still standing through it all. 

“You know what, it’s been hard, but it’s also been rewarding in ways for me professionally,” Gulutzan told The Athletic last week.

“I can tell you that every one of those coaches is a really good coach. The hard part is, you know, you form relationships with guys. Like with Tipp and I, and Jim Playfair and Brian Wiseman worked together, that was a really, really close staff. And it’s hard when you see guys leaving all the time. Woody and Dave Manson came in, so personally that change is always very tough, because there’s a real human element — you’re in the trenches together working every day, early mornings and games and winning and losing and all that stuff. You form bonds. So that’s the hard part, watching good hockey people go.”

But it’s a testament to Gulutzan’s personality that the awkwardness of all those coaching changes has eased with his ability to quickly build trust with each one.

“Gully has a great feel for the players. He’s a real good guy,” Tippett told The Athletic last week. “He gets along with everybody well. He’s a good person. It takes a certain element to deal with those top players and for a guy who never played in the NHL, he’s a guy that’s earned their respect and they trust him.”

Woodcroft, while coaching the Oilers, would say he thought Gulutzan was very professional and personable. Despite Woodcroft going in under tough circumstances with just over 30 games left in the 2021-22 season, they found a way to build a good working relationship.

While the hard part, Gulutzan says, is seeing people let go, the flip side to new coaches rolling through is being able to learn from all of them, which has deepened his toolbox.

“I’ve worked for five good coaches and you get to see the strengths of each one of those coaches,” said Gulutzan. “So professionally, you develop a little bit more. You’re certainly way more ahead than I was six years ago as far as experience and what I’ve seen and what works and what doesn’t work. 

“You watch the growth of the team now from a young Connor and Leon to where they are today, and you’re in the Stanley Cup (Final) and it started out where you’re not making the playoffs. So you got to see all that player growth. So professionally, it’s been very, very rewarding.”

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Glen Gulutzan has a discussion with Leon Draisaitl during a stoppage in play. (Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

As the media started filing out of the Oilers dressing room following the team’s series-clinching win over the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round, Gulutzan walked in, spotted No. 97 and delivered him a fist pump. 

Those two have lived a lot over the past six years.

“With Connor, certainly there’s a relationship there. You’re proud of him, you see his growth, you just see how driven he is,” Gulutzan said.

“Just to watch a young guy like Connor want to become the best player, where his internal push is to be the best and to win, it’s infectious even for you as a coach because you want to get better for him and help him as much as you can. But I just marvel at how driven he is. And how coachable he is for a superstar player. He wants to take in everything.”

The power-play magic that has been a constant weapon is at the heart of that relationship. It’s a power play that was dead last in the league the season before Gulutzan arrived — the Oilers finished ninth in the NHL on the power play that first season with him in charge and then No. 1 in 2019-20, No. 1 in 2020-21, No. 3 in 2021-22, No. 1 last season and then No. 4 this past regular season. And well, it’s been pretty dynamic this postseason. 

“This is a real credit to Glen Gulutzan. He’s been the architect of this power play since the day I got there (2018-19),” Hitchcock said earlier in the playoffs. “He’s a brilliant coach, just brilliant. He has a really good working relationship with those star players, so he’s able to adapt quickly and they’re able to adapt with him.”

Tippett said Gulutzan has a special awareness for how to tweak the power play when needed.

“He has a great feel for how to make it work better or how to get it back on track,” Tippett said. “You know, power plays go up and down, but he has a great feel for when tactics are an option versus work ethic or lack of work ethic, or just feel. One of the best things he ever tells the power play is, ‘Play road hockey.’

“When you have people like you have, if they’re at their best in road hockey, the other team doesn’t know what you’re going to do. It’s ad-lib.”

Gulutzan was actually in charge of the penalty kill in Vancouver under head coach Willie Desjardins in 2013-14. Which is important to remember when understanding a funny moment from a year ago.

Gulutzan was walking out of the rink one day while talking on the phone to another coach when the coach asked him about the penalty kill.

“I said to him, ‘Actually I enjoy running the penalty kill more than the power play,’” Gulutzan recalls. “And as I was walking out, Connor overheard me saying that. When I got off the phone, he says, ‘Oh, you like the PK better than the power play?’”

Gulutzan explained to McDavid with a chuckle that no, what he meant is running the penalty kill in Vancouver gave him a better understanding of what made the more dangerous opposing power plays tick. 

“I said to Connor, ‘Being part of this power play with you five will be the greatest accomplishment in my coaching career. It’s the most proud of anything in my coaching career to be part of it and work with you guys every day,’” Gulutzan said.

“Connor says, ‘I know that.’”

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Which resulted in both sharing a pretty good laugh.

“We’ve worked on this power play for six years, it’s a collaboration between all of them,” said Gulutzan. “We certainly got the right system in place when I got here and they’ve just evolved so much. And quite frankly, they’ve evolved and I’ve evolved with them. That’s what creates bonds, you’re working towards the same goals for such a long time.”

One must wonder now how many other organizations are paying attention to what Gulutzan has done in Edmonton and whether that will get him some interviews in the next coaching carousel round for head coach openings next year.

“I know if I were a GM out there and I was looking for a coach, you always wonder what’s the best fit, but he would certainly be a guy that would be worth having a conversation with,” said Tippett. “Just because of the experience he has now and all the different ends of it and the experience he has dealing with top players.”

The danger for Gulutzan is whether other front offices see him only as a great power-play coach and not head coach material. Which would seem short-sighted.

“It’s unfortunate because sometimes you’re a good coach and you get painted into a role,” veteran head coach Todd McLellan, Gulutzan’s first coach in Edmonton, told The Athletic. “You’re doing something really well and you just got painted into that role. And I’m not sure if anyone thinks about you any differently and maybe they should. Not just with Gully but with a lot of coaches.”

It reminds me of when Rick Bowness was an associate coach to Jon Cooper in Tampa Bay. Bowness and I would have conversations about whether he would get another head coach opportunity one day. He certainly was hoping. It finally came in Dallas and then Winnipeg.

But some organizations certainly viewed Bowness in Tampa as the veteran voice and mentor type but perhaps no longer head coach material. Which was wrong.

“Does the world think of Gully as a one-element coach? And I know he’s not that,” McLellan said. “He’s got tons of elements to him. But do the people hiring in the hockey world just sometimes think of these guys who end up being specialists as thinking that’s exactly what they are?”

Gulutzan was a young NHL head coach in Dallas from 2011-2013 and then got another shot with Calgary from 2016-18.

Does he get shot No. 3? 

What Gulutzan does know is that if it happens, he would return to that role with a lot more layered experience after these years in Edmonton.

“It goes back to those five coaches that I’ve worked for and then the growth of this team and watching these young guys develop; you’ve just added so much to your arsenal, right?” Gulutzan said. “I think coaches aren’t so dissimilar to players or anyone in any business, you get more and more confident the more knowledge you acquire.”

And more experience after learning from past mistakes, too.

“Probably the biggest thing I will take away is that I was pretty rigid as a head coach in not mixing up my lines. I liked continuity,” Gulutzan said. “And it served us well, we got on some big winning streaks in Calgary and we made the playoffs our first year. But there are times I’ve learned over this time with these other coaches, I would be more flexible with moving pieces around. I also realize that if I were ever to walk into another (head coaching) job, I would seriously analyze the personnel and then decide what systems we needed, because we have won with different systems here in the last five years with different coaches. It’s not the system, it’s the system that fits your players the best.”

There’s no doubt part of him wishes he could have told his younger self that in Dallas more than a decade ago.

“It’s hard for a younger coach to learn those things,” he said. “I got thrust in pretty quick (in Dallas). The knowledge you acquire over a period of time and working with great people and great players, and going from a poor team to a great team, all those experiences give you a broader framework to work with. So that’s the biggest thing I learned.”

(Photo of Glen Gulutzan and Kris Knoblauch behind the Oilers bench in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final: Elsa / Getty Images)



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