The topic du jour around here and in many other areas of the Flames fandom has been the treatment of Mikael Backlund and Sven Baertschi at the hands of Bob Hartley this season. Both guys figured to be major pieces for the team moving forward, but Hartley has been ambivalent at best when it comes to both of them.
My thoughts on Hartley’s experimentation and how it can impact the rebuild (and more) below…
– In a very general sense, there’s nothing wrong with the Flames coach experimenting to see what he has on the roster this season. That’s precisely what should be happening with this team since they aren’t going to be contending for a championship any time soon, so swapping guys in and out of certain combinations isn’t, in and of itelf, worrying.
The consternation, I think, comes from a couple of areas – firstly, that the hard love treatment handed to Backlund and Baertschi seems to be more or less restricted to just them. Each guy has his particular warts – Backlund’s never going to win a scoring title and Baertschi’s youth and naivety on the ice causes him to try to do too much now and then. But then no player in the NHL – and certainly no player on the Flames – is perfect. If you squint, you can rationalize a reason to beat up on just about anyone on any roster who isn’t an established superstar.
Which is why it’s curious that Hartley is swift to demote or scratch Backlund or Baertschi, but slow to act in other instances. For example, Curtis Glencross began the season looking like a man who woke up in a ditch with bottle of whiskey in his hand but he was allowed to more or less play his way out of the funk. Sean Monhahan began the season on a tear and generally looks like a capable NHLer, but he has also been consistently put in a position to succeed by the bench boss (good linemates, easier starting position, PP time). Nor has Hartley seriously entertained demoting the lad even though he’s had just five shots and one point in the last five games.
Which is to say, the rules governing rewards and punishments seem to vary quite widely depending on the player in question. It’s possible Hartley is tailoring his reinforcement system to maximize the future performance of each guy, but it really just looks like ol’ Bob simply doesn’t like young Backlund or Baertschi for one reason or another.
– That may seem awfully presumptuous, but you see this kind of behaviour in the league all the time. The Bruins decision to trade Tyler Seguin was more or less because the uppers decided they didn’t like the kid. When he was in town, Mike Keenan found ways to give ice time to Todd Bertuzzi while simultaneously looking for ways to grind down Alex Tanguay and Kristian Huselius (scratches, demotions, more difficult circumstances) until they left town. Greg Gilbert feuded with Marc Savard until the team finally traded him for nothing. etc.
– Here’s why this is potentially worrying: a coach who doesn’t like a guy can find every possible method to confirm his own biases. Matt Stajan was permanently in Brent Sutter’s doghouse once Darryl was shipped out of town so Brent buried the former leaf with lackluster ice time and crappy line mates. Stajan looked defeated most nights and his contract appeared to be a boat anchor. With a new coach and a different set of circumstances and Stajan looks like a different player.
It’s easy to claim a player must "earn his right" to ice time and such, but in the end the quality of a guy’s ice goes a long way to determining his output and, often, the perception of his abilities. I suspect one of the reasons players at the end of the rotation so often run around and try to crash, bang and hurt the opposition (aside from the fact that coaches and GM’s choose these player by type) is that mucking it up is about all you can clearly and memorably accomplish in 5 minutes of ice while playing with other grinders and fighters.
So it’s within a coach’s power to demote a dude, kick some dirt on him with plausible but non-specific criticism in the media ("he needs to want it more") and then let the destiny become self-fulfilling.
– The natural rebuttal to all this is coaches are motivated to win and they do themselves and the team a disservice if they privilege personal feelings and grudges above icing the best roster. That’s true, but then as we can ably demonstrate, NHL coaches are also human and fallible, despite being experts in their field. There isn’t an organization in the league that can’t relate a laundry list of highly useful players who were besmirched and run out of town by a decision maker and then went on to have a healthy career elsewhere. It happens.
– In fact, I think player prediction and decision making via personality and idiosyncratic values assessment is so rife and entrenched in the NHL that I recently created a short-hand concept for it – "cut of your jib" management.
We all know there are culturally prescribed norms in hockey and the NHL that define the "archetypal" hockey player and how he should be at the rink and play the game. To some degree, these are probably useful heuristics for determining who will turn out to be worthwhile pro or not.
Of course, sometimes heuristics stop being rules of thumb and become rigid dogma instead. The problem is, attitudinal heuristics are useful right up until the point they stop helping identify and keep quality hockey players and instead become the criteria by which you evaluate guys. That is kind of inverting casue and effect – if you are sacrificing skill because a guy’s personality isn’t archetypal, ie you’re valuing the heuristic rules bove the actual results, then you’re doing it wrong.
– The are likely other factors at play – picking players by "jib cut" could also be a method by which coaches confirm and/or reinforce their own authority within the group. Being seen as unimpeachable authority is an on-going challenge when trying to wrangle and manage a room full of alpha males. This may be why a coach sometimes chooses to skate an objectively worse roster – the guys he favors are the guys "who play the game the right way" (listen to him). In contrast, If a given player is undermining your authority in some implicit or explicit way, trim the threat by sitting him, demoting him, etc.
– This is all a very long preamble to my ultimate point: that while separating the wheat from the chaff sounds like an easy task, particularly when winning isn’t a primary concern, it is easily bungled. A primary error you see rebuilding teams make all the time is devaluing useful players because they aren’t obvious "solutions" to the problem (that is, they aren’t instant stars). Collecting and keeping useful pieces goes beyond drafting top-5 picks ahd have them step fully formed into the league as teenagers; it’s gradully and patiently developing guys over a number of years. Gathering together talent at all level of the roster.
A useful case study: The Edmonton Oilers spent the first few years of their rebuild discarding quality middle rotation players because they were too busy whale hunting, and/or the utility of the guy was buried beneath a misalignment between expectations and the player’s actual ability. So instead of keeping guys like Kyle Brodziak, Curtis Glencross and Andrew Cogliano as the connective tissue of the roster, they instead pursued "stars" (and, of course, truculence because you need that when everyone is young. Or something).
It is easy to be blinded to the usefulness of merely "good" players when confronted by the incandescence of high picks and budding elite players. But a lousy team should be committed to incremental improvement everywhere, so it’s important to identify and keep around the quality 2nd and 3rd liners as much as the obvious homeruns.
– Which isn’t to say Hartley will necessarily run Backs or Sven out of town. We’re not quite a quarter of the way into the season and things can change. Backlund’s turn with Cammalleri and Hudler the other night might be a performance that cements him in the line-up. And maybe Baertschi takes a step forward and everyone forgets his frequent early season scratches.
I guess we’ll see.