Random Thoughts – Let’s Talk Hartley



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.

  • RickT

    I wonder if they could (or if they would) experiment with Backlund on the wing. I’ve brought it up before, because it worked well in Sweden. If they decide that he’s not going to be one of the top three centres – why not just play Byron or Reinhart (or Knight, or, or, or) as the 4C, and Backlund on the wing while we have some guys out to injury?

  • Nighteyes

    The projected lines up are on the Flames website for tomorrows game. Backlund is on the second line centering D.Jones and Hudler. Baertschi is on the wing with Colborne and B.Jones. And Ramo is starting (thank the lord). Who wants to bet those lines will change 5 minutes in to the game and Colborne will be given 20 minutes of ice time because Backlund didn’t score a hat trick in the first period. Oh, Giordano is in the line up! Does anyone think they might have rushed him?

    • Colin.S

      Yeah I can’t believe he’s going to be back already. I have no idea why they would rush him though. At this point, simply due to the strength of the Western Conference, we are not going to make the playoffs, so why do we need him back?

      So we can have worse draft pick? Because having him back in the lineup will magically turned around the flames fortunes? Because we need to show off the illusion of trying our hardest to make the playoffs or something???? Quite honestly they should give him time off to make sure it’s 100% ready to go. I mean today they said he’s a game time decision tomorrow, that doesn’t sound like a guy that’s 100%, why would they rush him?

  • jakeryley

    Not sure if the vitriol being spewed Hartley’s way is completely justified. The majority of posters complain about not giving Sven ice time (he gets over 14 mins) and he is not outplaying the other LW’s on the team that are taking his ice. He only has 2 goals….while the talent is obvious, it is also obvious that he needs more seasoning (in the minors).
    Then the same posters bemoan Hartley for giving a goalie a chance. He gives Berra 10 games and in a couple of them he was pretty good and Hartley is an idiot for not giving the ice to someone else. I was glad to see him try and give Berra a chance to learn the NHL game now lets see if Ramo can carry the load.
    While I don’t love watching the losing, I am not sure what ANY coach could do with this group…

  • Graham

    Hartley was essentially hired to coach a veteran line up, but that is hardly what he has ended up with. He is the kind of coach that will reward good play, but it’s pretty hard to put ‘good play’ in the same sentence as Sven or Backlund. A big chunk of the blame for not performing has to be put on the kids, not the coach.

  • please cancel acct

    Scott Parker shows he has no respect for Hartley in his description of him. I believe it was Hartley who gave Parker heck for taunting Bob Probert as a rookie. Probert did not hold back in a fight and gave Parker a concussion. Hartley commented that he hoped that would teach Parker a lesson. All coaches have issues with some players. Lemaire and Robinson were critical of Scotty Bowman, Pat Burns threw an ashtray at John Kordic. It will be interesting to hear if more players come forward to support Parker or to support Hartley.

  • please cancel acct

    IMO B Hartley is a old school coach that would fit in well with a veteran group.In past interviews he has spoken about thinking in black and white terms, and how that has served him well.I can’t see how that belief can be successful on a rebuild..

    Backlund has moved backwards and does appear to playing desperate hockey.I agree with those who believe the coach has has done little to improve the game of Backlund and Baertschi.

  • please cancel acct

    Hartley is an idot and should be fired. I gave him the benefit of the doubt earlier on, but his tactics are having the reverse effect.

    We’re in a rebuild, so play the young guys, don’t destroy them.

    The confidence Backlund had from playing in Europe has now been compeltely undone. I still say he has enough offensive ability along with everything else we know about him to play as the defensive conscience between two skilled wingers on the 2nd line, but even if he’s only a 3rd liner, fine, he’s an amazing 3rd liner and only 24. Why are we running himout of town?

    Kent took the words right out of my mouth, but I’ve stated the example in previous posts as well. Baertschi vs Hartley is just Savard vs Gilbert. St. Louis is another guy never given the minutes, never given the opporunity to play with other top players or on the pp, run out of town for being too small. It’s crazy.

    Seriously, this is madness. We’re in a F$#^#%&$%@#$^&^@#$%!!!!!!! REBUILD!!!!!!!!! and our most talented and celebrated prospect of only a year ago (and still 2nd behind Monahan) is being jerked around while our best possession player who is a 24 year old center can’t even earn quality minutes with Stajan hurt.

    Hard to “earn” more minutes when you’re never given a chance. No wonder the confidence of both guys is destroyed. Who wouldn’t have their confidence destroyed under those conditions? McG over Sven during a rebuild, it’s beyond ludicrous.

    And playing Berra like he’s Patrick Roy in his prime during the middle of a Cup run, what the hell? Any casual observer can see the guy swimming all over the ice, made to look like a foolish amateur, sporting terrible numbers, deflating the play of the entire team and Harltey runs with him???

    Damn it, why aren’t these article being written in the MSM? Hartley needs to be fired NOW! What is Feaster thinking? Oh yeah, that’s his boy and their wagons are hitched.

    How much comes from BB, if any I don’t know, but both of those morons need to be let go yesterday.

    Problem is, BB is buddy-buddy with Feaster and will give him too much slack which Feaster will then pass onto Hartley. One giant Flaming circle jerk.

    If the Oilers overplayed their youngsters, Calgary is surely doing even more damage in the extreme opposite fashion.

    Watch our cap space, already not used during the Iginla and JBo trades, and apparently not planning to be used in any trades for picks/prospects this season, go to some “post-apex” FAs this summer or in some disaster of a trade this season in order to try and get the club back to 8th.

    Can Hartley before he completely ruins the rebuild we all had to wait for for way too long to get in the first place and do it now!

  • RexLibris

    Hartley has long been considered a “veteran’s coach” but the comments from Parker speak to something a bit more sinister.

    Were I a Flames fan (knock on wood) I think I might be more concerned about the coach who follows Hartley.

    Brian Burke is going to be the next GM of the Flames. Perhaps by draft day this year, or sometime this summer in an orchestrated management reshuffling that moves Feaster off to become Special Consultant to Hockey Operations on the Eastern Seaboard.

    Hartley was Feaster’s hire, and likely won’t be on after his contract is up. But Burke showed a disastrous reticence to fire his last head coach Ron Wilson, someone not all too different from Hartley in many respects, in Toronto. He then replaced him with Randy Carlyle, another coach with a reputation of being better suited to veteran rosters than rookies. This despite his declaring that the Leafs would rebuild using a variety of means outside of the draft and bringing considerable numbers of young players into the Maple Leafs’ system.

    So if Burke is the next GM, and given his history of coaching hires and past strategies for rebuilding franchises, can anyone suggest that the next coach will be a dramatic improvement over Hartley?

  • cunning_linguist

    At the beginning of the year, I would have fought tooth and nail for Baertschi to stay with the big club. As the season has progressed, however, I’m starting to think the Flames should consider sending him down to Abby if for nothing else than to protect him from the coaching of Bob Hartley.

    Hartley’s gotta deserve some credit for the start he’s given this club, wins/losses aside, I think most Flames fans would agree as far as entertaining/somewhat competitive hockey goes, Hartley’s got about as much juice out of this stone as a coach could get.

    That said, his handling of any prospect not named Sean Monahan has been suspect. I still believe Baertschi is an important piece of this franchise moving forward. The more I look at players like Kadri, Vey, Toffoli, Neidereiter and now guys like Ryan Strome over in Bridgeport, I just can’t help but think, selfish-desire-to-watch-Sven-on-TV aside, the best thing for him and for this club moving forward is to go down to Abby, play 20 mins a night, play for a team that’s winning, play 1st PP, play top line minutes, play in the dang playoffs. Arguably better than protected 14mins a night in NHL, and 100x better than sitting in press box.

  • I just don’t get why the Flames would trust the opinion of a, as stated, very obvious placeholder coach. When you draw up a long-term plan, you take the coach’s opinions into account, but you should already be planning on dumping him (unless it’s a Bowman or something). Don’t put all your trust in how one guy develops your young guys, especially if he won’t be around long enough to see the actual fruits.

    It’s too bad Scott Parker never punched him in the face. Like he said, some little wussy coach who only ever played Junior B used to push him around – Hartley is lucky he never got face punched by his own players.

  • Graphic Comments

    I agree with what you have said about Backlund, I used to be grumpy about his handling, but he is not doing himself any favors this year with his play. In his case Hartley’s disdain might be somewhat justified. In the case of Sven though, he is quite bit younger, and he needs a damn chance without being benched.

    If Hartley can’t separate his feelings from doing his job properly, then we should think about getting rid of him. His top priority absolutely has to be handling prospects and helping the rebuild. If he thinks sitting Sven every other game is accomplishing that, or that some sort of personal dislike is infecting his decisions, then he is not doing his job.

  • sathome

    I saw Elliotte Friedman draw some comparisons between Nino Niederreiter with NYI and Sven with the Flames. I really hope the Flames don’t keep making the same mistakes the Islanders made.