On Monday afternoon, Ottawa Sun columnist Bruce Garrioch’s Twitter lit up with a seemingly befuddling post.
This can’t be true: Craig Hartsburg is a candidate to replace Brent Sutter in Calgary? Seriously? #NHL
— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) May 28, 2012
The implication being that it’s a bit crazy that one of two survivors of the Calgary Flames coaching purge (along with goaltending guru Clint Malarchuk) would be considered for the vacant head coaching position. After all, as associate coach, Hartsburg was the de facto second-in-command to Brent Sutter, running practices on days Sutter was unavailable (or on days that practices were optional).
THE CASE FOR HARTSBURG
Moreso than perhaps any other contender for the job, Craig Hartsburg brings three things to the table: professional hockey experience, coaching experience and familiarity with the Calgary Flames.
Hartsburg played professional hockey for over a decade in the World Hockey Association and the National Hockey League, spending the bulk of his career with the Minnesota North Stars before retiring following the 1988-89 season. He spent seven years as team captain and immediately joined the North Stars as an assistant coach once he hung up his skates.
Since then, Hartsy has been a bit of a traveller. He’s been an assistant coach in Minnesota, Philadelphia and Calgary. He’s also been a head coach with the OHL’s Guelph Storm and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the WHL’s Everett Silvertips and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, as well as won a pair of gold medals coaching Team Canada at the World Juniors. Nobody in the race has a coaching resume with as much experience on it as Craig Hartsburg. He was also the OHL’s coach of the year in 1995.
Finally, Hartsburg has a lot of familiarity with the Flames due to his experience this year. The Flames boasted a revolving door line-up during the season and, ostensibly in charge of the defenders, Hartsburg instilled a decent amount of consistency in a group that included such notables as Joe Piskula and Clay Wilson at times. Usually missing one or two consistent NHL bodies, he made due and ensured that the Flames weren’t a horribly porous group.
THE CASE AGAINST HARTSBURG
Sadly, almost every “positive” point that Craig Hartsburg has can also be turned into a negative.
He had a tonne of NHL experience, true, but I’m not totally sold that NHL experience is a pre-requisite for being a good coach. Being a good coach is a pre-requisite for being a good coach. Here’s where I get a bit antsy with putting him in charge – he’s never shown that he’s a great as the main guy at the NHL level. He’s had some strong results as a junior coach, but his only coaching award came almost 20 years ago. In a sports world that’s very “what have you done for me lately?” it’s hard to trade on accomplishments that were so long past.
Finally, while Hartsburg admirably coached a defensive core that featured a lot of “not quite ready for NHL” players, he never really seemed to get a handle on the group once it got healthy. Even before the injuries became a concern, the back-end never really contributed offensive support the way many hoped it would, which seemingly put more pressure on the Flames’ forwards to get the job done.
Calgary’s blueliners scored 25 goals, 9 of them on the power-play. Only two defenders scored more than 2 goals (Bouwmeester and Giordano), and shockingly both of them were fixtures on the man advantage. Five-on-five, Calgary’s back-end players generally didn’t contribute a heck of a lot of offense, and the ones that did (Derek Smith and T.J. Brodie) were very sheltered in terms of their minutes and opposition.
Hiring Craig Hartsburg is not a risky move, but it’s not a particularly bold one, either. It’s a status quo hiring. The Flames players are familiar with Hartsburg, and he with them, but he’s also one of the voices that they seemingly tuned out at various points last year. The defensive players are unlikely to be all that different next season, but does retaining Hartsburg send the message that team management doesn’t think that how they performed was disappointing?
In a lot of ways, putting Hartsburg in the big chair would be like hiring Brent Sutter again. Both were very good junior coaches that had some disappointing results at the NHL level. That said, Sutter had a better coaching resume than Hartsburg did before arriving in Calgary, and the Flames core has already had a year to adjust to Hartsburg’s methods. If the point of getting a new coach is to take the team out of its comfort zone in an effort to get more out of the group, it’s unclear what the point of promoting the associate coach would be.
But if Flames management thinks that Sutter’s message and style was generally correct and that the main problem was Sutter himself, Craig Hartsburg is probably the right man for the job.