Taking notes: Assessing Ryan Huska’s first season as Flames head coach

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Ryan Huska sleeps with a pen and paper on his bedside table.

So if the Calgary Flames’ head coach is struck by an idea — a potential line combo or practice drill, a strategy for shutting down opposing sharpshooters or a set play that could end an overtime session — in the wee hours, he can jot it down without crawling out from under the sheets or disturbing the rest of his household.

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“I have a pad beside my bed and I’m going to try to put it away for a while, like at least a couple days,” Huska said in an end-of-season interview on Flames Talk on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “I’m going to watch some hockey, but I’m going to try to put that notepad away for a couple days and then you get back into the rink. I think you find that taking a couple days away just to clear your head, it kind of reinvigorates you a bit. And then those games that you’re watching, you can pick some different things out of and say, ‘Does that work for us? Could we incorporate that into our game?’

“Maybe there’s a combination of certain players on a different team and you’ll think, ‘Maybe if I put these two players together on our team, that’s like a (Nazem) Kadri-(Martin) Pospisil thing.’ Maybe we can find that.

“I don’t think you lose that. It stays with you. I’m just going to try to have a couple days where I don’t use that pad quite as much.”

It is, of course, tough for anyone in the hockey world to enjoy any R&R — even if it’s merely a weekend — in the month of April. Huska, who just completed the first chapter of his NHL head-coaching career, is quick to remind of that.

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The Flames, after several mid-season farewells, missed the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 38-39-5 record.

“It’s the first go-round for our current staff, and there were a lot of challenges and a lot of bumps along the way that we faced,” Huska acknowledged. “But there is a lot of disappointment. Because you put a lot of time and effort into it and when you don’t see it come to fruition, the goals that you set up for yourself and your team, it’s disappointing.”

As the Flames now turn their attention to 2024-25, adamant this will be an on-the-fly retool and not a bottom-out rebuild, there is a lot of excitement about what the future could hold for Calgary’s current rookie crop.

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Connor Zary, who produced at the highest point-per-game clip by any Flames freshman since Matthew Tkachuk, might have more offensive upside than anyone was projecting.

Pospisil has all the tools to be one of the NHL’s best pests — speed, tenacity and an I-don’t-give-a-hoot-who-hates-me mentality.

Matt Coronato, the youngest of the lot at 21, looked more and more comfortable on his most recent call-up and should be able to push his pace by adding some muscle over the summer months, and rising-star puck-stopper Dustin Wolf finished his end-of-season audition on a four-game win streak before rejoining the AHL’s Wranglers for a Calder Cup push.

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There’s another name that should be included on this list — a guy whose game get-up is a suit and sweater vest rather than skates and shoulder pads.

What will 82 nights of behind-the-bench experience mean for Huska, who climbed the ranks with a reputation as a good teacher and strong communicator? It’s worth noting he currently is the fourth-youngest skipper in the NHL. He turns 49 in July.

“Ryan, as a first-time head coach, I thought he was excellent,” Flames general manager Craig Conroy praised. “His goal is always to improve and he’s a tireless worker behind the scenes and a fierce competitor. He kind of has that personality where he looks like he’s not going to get upset, but he’s a fierce competitor. Nobody wants to win more than him, and I thought he had a great first year.”

It didn’t start out all that swell.

There must have been some sleepless nights for Huska during a 2-7-1 start. That beside-the-bed notepad likely was getting a workout.

“Looking back at it now — and I’ll look further back at it in a few days and in the weeks coming up — but we made a pretty significant change to the style that we played in our own zone and I think I underestimated how long it would take to get a grasp on it,” said Huska, who spent the previous five winters as an assistant coach with the Flames and was the farm-club boss before that. “After we didn’t have a lot of success with it, we really dug into it as a staff and we found out what were the most important parts to really hammer on, so we made sure the players understood that. And once they got a handle on it, I think we got much better from that point.

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“As much as I try to stay even-keel, for me as a head coach, there are certain situations when you’re in a stretch like you’re 2-7-1, I feel it. I think sometimes, as a first-year coach, that’s probably natural. But now that I’ve been through that experience, I know I’ll be able to handle it better.

“A lot of the lessons that you are given or taught along the way will make you better down the road. For me, that holds true. I know it will be the same for our players.

“But I like the fact that now there is really no question on how we play. There’s no wondering, ‘Should I be in this situation?’ or ‘Where should I be on the ice to cover this guy?’ They know it. Now, it’s just about executing.”

There is no question, unlike this time a year ago, who will be behind the bench for the Flames when they return for training camp in the fall.

With the exception of a few nights, and he can rattle them off, Huska was proud of the work ethic that his squad showed during a rollercoaster season. As he put it: “I think that is the foundation that has to be there, and I think we saw that.”

The rookie skipper stressed on locker-cleanout day at the Saddledome that “everybody has to find a way to do more and improve over the course of the summer.”

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He certainly expects that from himself.

Before long, the notepad will be back on his bedside table and he will be scribbling ideas that could lead to more wins in October, November and beyond.

“You have to try to find ways to make yourself better and I think reflection is a big part of that,” Huska said. “It’s a coach’s responsibility. We ask players to hold themselves accountable after games. Coaches have to do the same things.

“No different than a player, if you’re just standing still and not doing anything to change, people will pass you by and our team will be behind and will lag and I won’t be in this chair for very much longer. I don’t want any part of that.

“So I believe it’s important that you have to put the time and work in and really do a lot of reflection and make sure you’re finding different ways to make yourself better and make the team better. That’s so important as you move forward.”

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