There isn’t a lot to talk about in Flamesland these days. The injuries have piled up and, predictably, so have the losses.
Perhaps the primary bone of contention is the coaching, thanks to Bob Hartley’s predilection for controversial or at least counter-intuitive choices now and then. The focus on the Flames bench boss will likely increase in the wake of Scott Parker’s recent accusations in the Denver Post, to say nothing of the continued scratching of assets like Sven Baertschi.
– In case you missed it, former Avs enforcer Scott Parker was recently interviewed by Adrian Dater because he is suffering from post-concussion symptoms. During the interview, Parker claimed that Bob Hartley was a bully of a coach who constantly threatened to send him down and demanded he play through injury:
"He would call me a (expletive), say that Hershey (the Avs’ former minor-league affiliate) would be my next stop, where I’d be ‘smelling chocolate fumes all day long.’ I remember I thought I had a broken foot and told him about it, and he called me a (expletive) and said Hershey would love me," Parker said. "Nobody needed to question my commitment to doing my job. But I was just constantly belittled by Bob Hartley. I really have no respect for the man."
Hartley, now coach of the Calgary Flames, declined to comment when informed of Parker’s remarks. The pressure Parker describes might not be as prevalent in today’s NHL, as fewer teams employ a self-described "enforcer," but it still exists.
"If you’re hurt, it doesn’t matter. You’re made to think ‘I have to fight, or I’ll lose my job,’ " Parker said.
To some degree I’m guessing this describes the general treatment of fighters in hockey – all of them exist on the fringes of the roster and need to "justify" their existence by playing through pain and dropping the gloves.
That said, this accusation has to be at least somewhat worrying for Flames fans. While it can be argued that NHL coaches have used aggressive tactics to push and motivate their players since time immemorial, it’s also obvious that this brand of discipline can alienate players and should be used strategically and sparingly at best.
It’s also worrying because Hartley has begun to turn the stink-eye on a couple of the organization’s younger assets in Mikael Backlund and Sven Baertschi. We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes and if Hartley is giving similar tongue lashings and ultimatums to them as he did to Parker, but it would be terrible to see one or both of them soured by a placeholder coach.
– Related: I call Hartley a placeholder because I don’t see him sticking around beyond his initial contract with the club. Most coaches don’t outlast extended rebuilds and I haven’t seen anything on the ice in his first 60-or so games that would suggest he is above average relative to other bench bosses. The team is about as bad as one would expect, his need to have an enforcer dressed every night is archaic and indefensible and it’s clear he likes to play favorites with his roster decisions, sometimes to the detriment of the club. Of course, all coaches obviously play favorites to some degree. It’s just that the best coaches preferences also tend to more or less line-up with reality, however. Hartley, however, seems to grade on a steep, subjective curve.
– The series of starts given to Reto Berra during November has to be one of the most bizarre string decision making I’ve seen in the NHL this year. Beginning November 3 and stretching to Nov 29, Berra played in 11 games, which means Hartley used him almost exclusively. The Swiss goalie managed just four quality starts over that period and currently sports an .888 SV% – both of which are terrible results.
Berra struggled qualitatively as well. Although he made a few highlight reel saves during that period, he also had obvious problems on a nightly basis: tracking pucks through traffic, over-committing on initial plays and frequently losing his net.
It’s entirely possible these are the struggles of a talented guy who is just trying to find his feet at this level, but Berra’s performance is in practice not materially different than the play of many of the guys the team has banished since they began to look for Kipper’s replacement (Leland Irving, Joey MacDonald and Danny Taylor). What’s more, the organization has an alternative in Karri Ramo who has better results in a better league and is signed for an extra season after this one, whom Hartley ignored for an entire month of play.
To be fair to Hartley, Ramo had his own struggles at the start of the year, but then again, Berra hasn’t really done anything noteworthy to be granted such a high degree of confidence.
– I’ve defended Mikal Backlund a lot the last few years and I bristle at his treatment at the hands of Hartley this year. That said, Backlund’s offensive game has gone backwards so far this season, particularly in the last week or two.
At his most tentative, Backlund gets rid of the puck way too soon when he’s in the opposition’s end, usually throwing prayers at the net from the shallow end of the offensive zone. Last year and the beginning of this season he was starting to hang on to the puck with more authority, even driving the net and looking for ways to deepen the cycle. He has looked exceptionally nervous recently to my eye, however, and a lot like the kid who was surprised to find himself on NHL ice a few years back.
Backlund has the raw skills that should help him get results, but it’s pretty clear he’s never going to be a true point-getter at this level. He’s better than he’s shown recently though and his struggles aren’t simply because he doesn’t always get to play with good players in offensive situations.
Backlund is good enough at other things like positioning, skating and anticipation that he’s almost always useful, but he’ll never get over the hump in this org without a least some offensive bite to his game.
– In one way, the above observation may vindicate Hartley’s ambivalence towards Backlund this year. In another, they are an indictment of the coach – Backlund’s game has regressed under Hartley’s tough love this season and if this coaching staff has one key objective guiding their efforts this season, it should be to develop and improve guys like Backlund. Not push them backwards.
– I am growing more and more fearful Hartley has taken a genuine dislike to Sven Baertschi and the organization will have to make a choice between the two down the road. Baertschi has some gaps in his game to be sure, but the Hartley seems quick to punish and slow to reward the youngster this year. If this is a tactic desgined to make him a better NHLer then so be it, but I have visions of Greg Gilbert and Marc Savard dancing in my head with each new healthy scratch.
Picking coaching over exceptional talent has a way of blowing up in a franchise’s face sometimes.