Random Thoughts – The Cut of Your Jib



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.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The one thing none of the Hartley proponents are addressing (at least not adequately) is why it’s just those 2 players (Sven and Backs).

    Ok, so you treat your vets differently, but no one has explained why Monahan (I had a feeling I’d regret changing my opinion and getting on the keep him up band wagon) hasn’t been scratched. Or Colborne, who struggled mightily to start and was allowed to play his way out of it. Beyond that, he was actually given better circumstances while struggling.

    Not saying I’m a Hartley hater, but the team is in a rebuild and if you want your young guys to get better they have to be played.

    If the ultimate goal is to go beyond once again challenging for 8th in the conference, than ‘winning’ can’t be everything. Development has to play a key role and that means ice time to your future key cogs.

    And, no, I’m not saying be Edmonton. Idiots that run that team, by any measure. But, while they went way too far in one direction, I’m starting to wonder if we’re not swinging too far the other way.

    Backlund has historically been a hard worker. He’s the team’s best possession player. He’s only 24 years old, but he’s been with the team for a few seasons now. He has enough offensive ability to center skilled wingers on the 2nd line and be their defensive conscience.

    Sven was praised as the next coming of Mike Bossy/Hakan Loob on this site not even 2 years ago and has the talent to be a legit 1st line winger.

    So how consistently benching them and playing them in crap circumstances with crap linemates helps the team acheive the future goal of winning a Cup is beyond me.

    Sorry, but the reasons given in defense so far are incredibly weak. Both guys deserve a 10 game run on the top 2 lines with solid libemates and 1st pp unit. Then decide what you have. But what Hartley is doing is assinine and smacks of personality preference.

  • please cancel acct

    Also, the whole “think they’re smarter than NHL GMs and coaches” thing is irritating beyond measure. If that’s the case, than the only thing on here to say is “go Flames!” Besides, ever hear of Mike Milbury? Literally 99% of hockey fans could’ve done a better job than that idiot, so there goes the entire argument that “people who are in positions of power are smarter than those whoa re not simply by virtue of being in those positions of power.” Ridiculous. Anyone who’s ever had a job or even vaguely paid attention to national politics can verify that’s not the case. So enough with the “they’re right because they have the job” argument already.

  • Parallex

    @ Kent Wilson

    I understand why there is concern over Baertshi and Backlund but I think some fans and writers on this are over-reacting way too much. Backlund played fourth line duty for a couple games and Baersthi was scratched for only a couple games. It is still early in the season.

    Kent, you flat out say that Hartley doesn’t like Backlund and Baertshi… I think you are way off here. (That is quite a strong accusation and it is based on a couple of games only.) Over the last two seasons Hartley has had tons of praise for Backlund.

    All that is happening is that Hartley is challenging B&B to take the next step.

    Yes players are treated differently it seems, but that is part of what makes a good coach… to know your players… to know that buttons to push… to know that players are people, and that people aren’t the same and to manage their personalities accordingly.

    Please reply.

  • Parallex

    Anyone with more time then I willing to do a little study… look up the games where Backlund and Baertschi were either scratched or started out on the 4th line and tell me what the teams record was on those games versus games where neither of those occured.