Photo courtesy @Isuckatpicking on Twitter
Calgary Flames Head Coach Bob Hartley is a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy and will likely end up being named NHL Coach of the Year. It seems to make sense, right? Hartley was behind the bench as the Flames engineered a 20 point turnaround from last year, jumping from 77 to 97 points. Typically, a resurrection story like Calgary’s ends up yielding a coach of the year honour. So how much credit needs to go to Hartley for this year’s dream season?
I’ve been, and will continue to be, the first to admit that much of this year’s success has been on the back of percentages, good fortune, magic, and about 14 other hyperbolic phrases. How much is a coach truly responsible for a team finding lightning in a bottle and beating the odds in a logic defying fashion? I would suggest it’s tough to chalk that particular part of the season up to coaching. However, I do think Hartley has made an impact in a few key areas from his perch behind the bench.
Putting players in a spot to succeed
Hartley’s player utilization was pretty solid this season and it helped a few guys have career years. From the start of the season, Hartley really got it right with how he used his defensive pairings, especially in the top four.
From day one, Hartley absolutely hammered his top pairing of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie with some of the toughest minutes in the NHL. Sure, in a lot of ways it’s Coaching 101 to rely on your best players, and yet, not every coach does it. Hartley had no qualms in giving his top pairing brutal minutes, because they could handle it, and handle it extremely well. In the process, it allowed him to lighten up the minutes on his second pairing of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman.
Both Wideman and Russell had significantly higher zone start figures than Brodie and Giordano in the 60 games Gio played before going down with injury. Again, Hartley recognized who was more likely to succeed where, and a higher offensive load for Wideman and Russell most certainly contributed to their career years offensively.
But relying heavily on two thoroughbreds like Giordano and Brodie doesn’t necessarily signify good player usage. However, the way he used a few of his forwards does.
Hartley is the first coach to truly utilize Mikael Backlund properly. For the better part of two seasons now, Hartley has used Backlund as his top defensive centre and, funny enough, the team is paying dividends. After Flames fans put up with garbage comments about Backlund “whistling past the graveyard” and how he “doesn’t compete hard enough”, the team finally has a coach who knows how to use him. Hammer him with defensive zone starts, give him tough matchups, and watch him set your next line up for success. With Hartley at the helm, we can finally say mission accomplished.
I think you can also point to Sean Monahan’s progression and give a slight bit of credit to Hartley, too. First off, Hartley did a pretty decent job of protecting him in his rookie campaign last year. Well, thanks to an early Backlund injury and some solid summer steps forward from Monahan, the reins came off in year two. Protecting a rookie during a losing season is important, and it helped allow Monahan to score 20+ goals to start off his career on a very positive note.
I know a lot of this stuff above sounds rather rudimentary, but it’s actually important. Brent Sutter was downright awful at times at utilizing players properly and it contributed to why his teams missed the playoffs all three years. And, we just saw Hartley school Vancouver’s Willie Desjardins in the art of matchups in round one of the playoffs. Hartley saw areas to exploit against the Canucks, made the adjustments, and made Desjardins look completely lost as his depth was victimized.
Pushing the right buttons
Somewhat related to how he used his players, Hartley had a knack for pushing the right buttons at the right time. Yes, sometimes things just work out, but when most of the coach’s decisions end up being successful ones, some credit is due.
Hartley didn’t choose his goaltenders would be this year. He had Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller to work with, and immediately made the decision to not name a number one netminder. While that decision was met with criticism in some corners, it sure has worked out well.
The truth is, neither Ramo nor Hiller have been truly number one guys. So instead of rigidly sticking with one guy over the other, Hartley went on gut feel. Sure, on some occasions it didn’t work, but more often than not the right goaltending choice was made at the time.
Oh and let’s not forget how some of those in-game goaltending decisions have worked, either. Deciding to yank his starter in games against Boston, Ottawa, and most recently Vancouver ended up paying dividends. Much like all of this season, it takes a special set of circumstances for so many of those decisions to pay off, but the decisions still have to be made.
I’ll throw Sam Bennett into this category as well. Hartley didn’t draft the 18-year-old phenom, but he did decide to play him. On top of that, Hartley put him in the right spot, threw him on the wing with a very capable centre (Backlund), and it’s paid off. Again, you can’t credit Hartley for Bennett falling into his lap, but you can credit him for going ahead and using him, and using him right.
Galvanizing the team
Maybe the most talked about thing this season has been the whimsical stuff that makes for good narrative, but we’ll include it as well. Sometimes I feel the roles of things like belief and identity are a little overplayed by us mainstream media folks. Plenty of NHL teams have tried to play the “prove you wrong” card unsuccessfully, let’s not forget. Sometimes if you’re bad, you’re just bad, no matter how much you want to prove to be the world you’re not.
That said, I’m not going to deny that there’s something to be said about proper motivation. Hartley started the talk of playoffs right from the beginning of training camp. While some snickered quietly in the background, the message certainly did remain the same in the locker room. Prepare like you’re a playoff team, practice like you’re a playoff team, and who knows what can happen.
The seven game segment concept that Hartley talked about all year long isn’t groundbreaking or novel, but it did serve it’s purpose. The team stayed focused on a goal, and I can tell you from being in that locker room on a daily basis, they kept falling back on it too.
Now, I don’t think that if, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs took this same approach next year they’d automatically have success. Galvanizing a team only goes so far, because eventually you need other things to be in your favour too. But in this particular year, Hartley took an approach that the team bought into. Do I think it’s chiefly responsible for where they are? No, I don’t, because I think other things have made a larger impact. But I don’t think it’s totally insignificant, either.