The Impact of Bob Hartley

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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.

    • mk

      I think Colbourne comments at the end of the season captured it quite well: Hartley has been consistent in his message & generally makes his expectations known on multiple levels. He communicates 1-on-1, to groups (d-core, pairings, lines, etc.), the team as a whole & in public (through media) – all of these methods involve the same message. The team can buy into that.

      Something can be said that winning makes any approach seem the right one. That could be part of the case here.

      [An aside: Colbourne generally seems to be one of the better interviews on this team. I could him working for an NHL team down the road in an off-ice capacity once his on-ice career is over, similar to Conroy.]

  • Captain Ron

    There’s another player that was resurrected by Hartley besides Backlund , and that’s Stajan.

    They were both victimized by B Sutter, and his awful coaching.

    Darryl should have fired Brent.

    • Craig

      Stajan I can see as being resurrected by Hartley but not Backlund. Backlund was good before Hartley but no one recognized it and he was labelled a bust for his low points totals.

    • beloch

      Stajan has been stuck on the fourth line and his point generation has been lower this year than at any point in his career with the Leafs or Flames. Sure, he’s not making “whipping boy” comments to the media like he did under Sutter, but I sincerely doubt he’s happy with entering what can only be described as the “twilight of his career”.

      Yes, the fan expectations are now much lighter for him. The fans are completely on his side in fact, and go wild every time he scores. He gets smiles and props from Hartley when he has a good game. However, the fact remains that his opportunity to contribute offensively has been almost completely taken away and he’s now being used as glue on a checking line. Bennett is going to move to centre ice next season and with Monahan, Backlund, and Bennett as the clear top 3, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for Stajan and all the other centres in the club.

      Stajan has put on a very brave face in spite of circumstances that have been, both personally and professionally, not good. I think he’s grown as a person, but as a player he’s probably ready for a change of scenery. He still has some good years ahead of him and could play a much bigger role on a different team.

      • Bean-counting cowboy

        Yea, I guess my expectations for Stajan have always been that of a 3rd line journeyman who could slot in on the first or second line ,if necessary.

        Yea and it would surprise me if, as you suggest, that he’d be happy to move on and play a bigger role elsewhere.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Agree on all points. I think the “galvanizing” concept could also be seen by many in-game decisions that many would see as high risk yet motivated his team and pushed the right buttons. A few examples:

    -pulling the goalie with significant time left on the clock being down 2 goals fostered a belief amongst the players and paid off a couple of times

    -playing David Schlemko in shootout on a hunch and a recommendation from Kris Russell & Brad Treliving shows trust in his players & team. Players feed off of this stuff.

    -Goalie pulls that seemed to be perfectly timed that changed the momentum and got the team back in games.

    -Use of time-outs. On several occasions the timing seemed perfect and swung the momentum in the Flames favour.

    Hartley seemed all year to have a great pulse on the team and knew the right buttons to push. His on-ice instruction in practice and 1 on 1 with his young guys has paid huge dividends in their development. His emphasis on fitness and endurance has led to strong 3rd periods.

    Give the man the award!

  • Burnward

    Agreed…Coach of the Year! hands down.

    And he can definitely take this team to another level next year! This season was just a small progression over last season…

  • Burnward

    What sets Hartley apart from most/many coaches at all levels…if his steadfast unwavering approach to using positive communication, engagement, visualization and empowerment.

    As an amateur coach for many years, I see 9 out of 10 coaches using negative language & tone, punitive tactics, insults & put-downs, etc. Most players don’t respond well on a long-term basis to this coaching style…the culture is negative, the enjoyment factor diminishes and gives way to resentment, and the self-confidence evaporates.

    Hartley truly “coaches” in the truest sense of the word. Quiet one-on-ones, openly communicating both corrections and expectations, inspiring to reach higher and to realize the dream of the road-hockey child in every player.

    Kudos for Hartley for always talking a positive game and inspiring. What a difference from the sour team culture set by Sutter or the hard-ass one of Keenan.

    • Captain Ron

      I’d say this is a near perfect analysis of the man and his style of coaching. I especially agree on the empowerment comment. The players on this team are just starting to realize their true potential with Hartley front and center as one of the big reasons why.

      He appears to be a home run coaching hire by Feaster

  • beloch

    I have some nits to pick with Hartley, but remarkably few. His loyalty to his current players has, at times, blinded him to the talent he had available. For example, Wotherspoon could be a significantly bigger factor in this series if Hartley had bothered to give him some minutes in the regular season during the many times he was called up and available. Failure to do that resulted in Wotherspoon not being ready to play significant minutes when he was most needed.

    On the other hand, you have stories like Ferland. He started playing hockey late. He was drafted late. He had a drinking problem and a year ago he was still dealing with the legal fallout of a bar fight. Ferland deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s turned his entire life around, but the story he tells suggest that Hartley played a role in that too. I’d hate to think where Ferland would be now if Torts had been the coach he went to for help!

    Hartley is not a 9-to-5 kind of coach. He lives the job. He makes the players his family. Even in the NHL there are a lot of coaches who don’t do that.

  • Craig

    I think Hartley has had a big impact on the team as a great leader and inspirer. His work with the team in the room has been tremendous, you can tell by how tight this group is.

    I don’t agree with all of his on ice decisions, (Engelland) but it seems he’s been very successful I motivating this team.

  • cgyokgn

    Hartley has been able to get the team to buy into his philosophy of hard work and has been consistent in the delivery of his message from day one. He has set clear expectations and has been unwaveringly positive even in the face of negative results (like the eight-game slide). Of course he’s not perfect but he deserves a lot of credit for the team’s never-say die attitude and guiding them to the second round of playoffs.

    Hartley is a very worthy candidate for the Jack Adams trophy.

  • RKD

    His impact has been huge, he’s taken a lot of younger player and veteran players and they are enjoying career seasons under him. He’s doing more with less, he’s holding his players accountable when they are not playing well. You can see he’s a player’s coach, he’s taking each player aside and having one on one conversations with them. He’s putting guys in the right situation and motivating his team to succeed and not panic when things aren’t going well.