A Coaching Change Could Save The Season

The Calgary Flames season has started off just about as badly as could possibly be imagined. Everything that could’ve gone wrong on the ice seems to have happened, and bad puck – and otherwise – luck has been present on a nightly basis. However, despite having just one regulation win, and three wins overall, on this day the 5th of November, the Calgary Flames season is not lost. 

Yet.

Fact is, the season can still be saved, but there almost certainly needs be a change behind the bench in order for that to take place.

Why the Season Isn’t Lost

Before I delve into the thesis of this piece, allow me to explain why the season isn’t lost.

In short, it’s because the Pacific Division this year looks more like the Sewer Division. No team – outside of maybe Los Angeles – looks particularly terrifying in the early going.  Vancouver is technically .500 from a strict win/loss perspective (I understand it doesn’t work that way), San Jose has come down to earth after Martin Jones’ brick wall impression wore out and is a .500 team, Arizona’s PDO is bigger than the gall of Glendale’s City Council, Edmonton just lost Connor McDavid for months and proved last Saturday that deep down, they’re still the Oilers and Anaheim is still somehow tripping over themselves.

Case in point: Three teams in this division will make the playoffs and with 25 inter-division games remaining for the Flames – who are 5 points out – the door is still open. It’s not wide open, but it’s open wide enough that the Flames could squeeze through it with some lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle Changes

Bob Hartley has been the head coach in Calgary for over three seasons now. His and Jacques Cloutier’s system appears to be running stale, and is being seriously exploited a year after it baffled 29 other teams en-route the Flames’ playoff appearance.

Brad Treliving’s job this offseason was to improve the Calgary Flames roster, which he appears to have succeeded in doing, but the Flames as a team are somehow worse.  How do you explain that?

Many non-MSM types around the Flames have pointed to Bob Hartley’s system as the problem plaguing the Calgary Flames this season, but Bob Hartley is the reigning Jack Adams winner so that can’t be right.

Thing is, it can. It’s a system that encourages waiting out the other team on defence, essentially giving them space to work and then blocking their shots, taking the puck and firing a stretch pass to a streaking forward. It’s all sunshine and roses when it works; problem is it no longer works.

Here’s the thing about blocking shots: it’s a bit of an exercise in randomness. Unless you’re directly in front of the shooter, actually blocking a shot takes some luck. This season, a lot of attempted blocked shots have turned into prime scoring chances for the other team, and most of those scoring chances have gone in. Yes, the goaltending has been woeful, but when you’re allowing Nathan MacKinnon to shoot from the high slot and giving Dale Weise all day to wind up, you’re bound to let in goals.

The Flames have had a .900 or better SV% posted by their starting goaltender just twice this season, and have allowed 26 more goals through 13 games than they did last year, with a better D core (Dougie Hamilton replaces Ladislav Smid, don’t argue that’s a bad swap) and the same goaltending. 

You can chalk up a little bit to underperforming players and to struggling goaltending, but fact is, the rest of the NHL has figured out the Calgary Flames and the coaching staff hasn’t adapted.

The Flames are Top 10 in both High Quality Scoring Chances Allowed and Scoring Chances Allowed in the league, and combined with Hartley’s defensive strategy, it’s of little surprise the Flames are also dead last in the league in goals against, with eight more allowed than the woeful Blue Jackets. EIGHT.   

Earned Not Given, Right?

Last year, the Calgary Flames were the hardest working team in the NHL, astounding everyone on a nightly basis with their relentless battle. As a professional hockey player, you want to maximize the amount of playing time you have, and if working your butt clean off is the way to do it, you won’t think twice.

That same work ethic seems to be largely absent this season.

The explanation appears to lie in the coaching staff’s departure from their motto. Hartley has shown inexplicable loyalty to guys like Brandon Bollig, Kris Russell and even Sean Monahan, playing them despite their horrendous play, and in Monahan’s case insisting he continue his first line minutes.

As a guy like Mikael Backlund, seeing Sean Monahan back check like an ice dancer and play 23 minutes a night, while one of your mistakes earns you six minutes a night with Brandon Bollig, and all the good defensive plays you make seem to go unnoticed, it’s tough to convince yourself to give it 100%, all the time. I’m sure this is not an isolated example.

To me it’s becoming increasingly clear that Bob Hartley has lost the room, and the Calgary Flames are no longer buying what he’s is selling. 

If the Flames’ system has been exposed to the point where it’s rendered ineffective, and the team no longer unconditionally supports a coach whose effectiveness largely comes from motivation, then there needs to be a change, plain and simple. 

I’m not here to suggest candidates, because Brad Treliving undoubtedly has his own candidates in mind already – every GM has “his guy” – so speculation would be a useless exercise.

However, I very much believe this team is underachieving, and it’s largely due to the way they play hockey. The power play often looks disjointed despite the weapons on it, and the PK is an absolute fire drill.

This all comes down to coaching, and while pointing to the underachieving of the roster may seem like a valid counterargument, it’s also the coaching staff’s responsibility to snap players out of their slumps. Bob Hartley’s line blender and scratch roulette may have worked last season, but it simply isn’t cutting it this time around. 

Do you fire a Jack Adams winner just 12 games into the season without giving him a chance to turn things around?

Frankly, yes you do. And here’s why. 

What Will A New Coach Do?

Assuming the Flames don’t choose an assistant coach to replace Hartley, whoever would come in would bring change. Not only a new system, which is desperately needed, but also a fresh slate with all the players. ‘Earned not Given’ will make a return by default, since a new coach has no loyalties to the players, and a return to the blue collar way of hockey that made this team successful will almost surely be seen.

When the offseason rolls around, a thorough evaluation can take place to determine if whomever interim coached the rest of the season is the right fit, or if they move on elsewhere, but just the chance that a new coach could turn around the season is a chance worth taking.

Something is broken in Calgary and it’s become increasingly clear that the problem is behind the bench, Jack Adams be damned. The Calgary Flames have evolved from an efficient, hardworking club to a predictable, inconsistent group over the course of an NHL offseason. The roster has improved on paper and deteriorated on the ice, leaving little question of the reason.

With a league low PDO and SV%, the Flames are clearly not as bad a team as they’ve shown through 12 games. They simply need to be refreshed, and with 70 games remaining in the season – whilst residing in the worst division in hockey – the time to make a change IS now.

The season is not yet lost, and a change at some point is inevitable, so why not make it now, and give it a run? At the very least, if they do end up missing the playoffs, they can at least sit back and say, “We tried”. I sure as hell wouldn’t want be sitting here in April, wondering what would have been if someone else took the reigns in November. 

A new coaching staff doesn’t guarantee the 2015-16 Calgary Flames season will be salvaged, but at this point, it’s the best chance – and a rapidly expiring one at that – to do so.

  • cberg

    Since this article is mainly about why the Flames need to dump BH, and if we did how that would make such a huge difference, perhaps we need to look more closely at some of the “issues” this year and what influence/control BH has on each of them.

    1. “Coach has lost the room”. Well, sometimes that happens for various reasons and the players stop playing for the coach. Over the past year we’ve seen two very clear examples of that in first Edmonton and later Toronto. Is that happening here? Personally I don’t see it, neither do I see much evidence of it, although to be honest I have zero inside information nor room access so its only what I see and hear from afar. The team still seems to be putting in a strong effort pretty much every game. The team seems to come prepared by the coaches, starting much better than last year with even the goalies awake versus many first or second shot goals last season. I’ve heard absolutely zero noise/Twitter comments or etc from the players suggesting a mutiny. And finally the commitment still seems to be there, as perhaps evidenced by the still very high number of shot blocks again this season. Conclusion: NOT

    2. “Should have kept XYZ players”. Although it hasn’t come up yet in this article, commenters are still focusing on the ones that got away, including mostly Byron but also others before him. Let’s be clear about Byron, he was one of BH’s favourites, and BH isn’t the guy to put players on waivers, and clearly from BH comments when we lost Byron, BH was not in agreement with the waiver decision. Conclusion: NOT

    3. “BH has mishandled the goalies”. Last year BH promoted and instilled a goalie rotation based on winning and keep playing, lose and the other guy gets a chance. It worked, well. The goalies knew what was happening and seemed to thrive in the situation. When injuries happened BH inserted Ortio into the mix and he played pretty outstanding for a stretch as well.

    This year we started the season with three goalies due to waiver issues and waiting on a trade (that never happened). BH & BT made it very clear to start the season that 3 goalies was not desirable and was not going to last. BH started with Ramo, naming him the starter based on end of season I presume, but none of them really took the bull by the horns and ran with it in pre-season either. He then went to Hiller when Ramo faltered and back and forth for several games just like last year. Nobody won a game on their own and the team didn’t help matters with other things happening. Once it became clear that this wasn’t working Ramo was sent down and Hiller given the reigns to run with. He got injured. Ortio got his shot and played mediocre. Finally Ramo has been given several games to try and right the ship and yesterday played fairly well. We won but that’s probably as much on the team overall than it is that the goalie won it. In retrospect we can say BH should have done things differently, but he maintained something that was successful and this year it wasn’t. Conclusion: NOT

    4. “Terrible line-up decisions”. Many seem furious/upset with the line-up decisions of BH, especially regarding our more fringe players like Bollig, Raymond and Bouma. But the upset also covers our better players like Backlund, Monahan and Bennett. Although I have no info on BT input into these decisions (like trying to highlight a player for a trade) which may be there, I am starting from the view that this is in fact all BH and clearly one of his major responsibilities. Having said that, clearly we are on the outside and have limited to zero knowledge of all the factors that go into making these decisions. I do not see practices. I do not see the locker room. I do not know the specific game strategies up front. I get only very limited views of what happens on the bench during games. In games (on TV) I get very limited time to follow specific players and see how they actually play as the TV follows the puck. What I do get are limited views and limited boxscore-like statistics after the fact. This doesn’t mean my (and others’) observations are invalid, nor that I have no real basis to share them, I do, I just try to remember to take them with a grain of salt and value them for what they are, an outsider’s viewpoint.

    Now, overall I would say there have been some things I might have done differently, especially focused on keeping some lines/pairings together longer but frankly the team played crap to start the season (better recently) and many of the moves were to kickstart certain key players. I do not have a strong case against the BH line-ups. He has tried, when things work, great, when they don’t he changes them on-the-fly in-game, which is expected. Conclusion: Valid “Outsider” views.

    5. “How BH has handled the D”.

    6. “Play your best players the most!”

    7. “Players are regressing”.

    8. “The System is out-dated/broken”.

    9. “BH has a terrible record”.

    • cberg

      5. “How BH has handled the D”. There definitely are some issues here, as the TOI has had a few outliers like the Colorado game. Having said that at the start of the season we had a new player, Hamilton to get familiarized with the system and the Flames D, and we had two guys out with injuries, and Gio returning from a major injury. The Brodie injury is the most significant issue with the D. Since he has been back the team has played MUCH better and the major issues with the D have started to calm down. In addition, Hamilton is starting to get comfortable and play better too, and find his place within the line-up. This has not been a trivial process. On the plus side I thought his handling of Kulak at the start of the season was very good, and of Engelland all season. Conclusion: Start-up & Injury ISSUES

      6. “Play your best players the most!” See above regarding the D which also applies elsewhere. The one caveat I would add is I don’t really see the 200ft defensive side of play as much as required. I think in general the TOI has been pretty good, with odd outliers here and there. I also normally only look at final game numbers and line issues come into play sometimes that are hard to incorporate. Recently some have taken exception to Monahan’s TOI as he is not producing as previously, though with the exception of only a few games he has had his chances. Flipping around lines hasn’t helped matters and I believe once BH settles on some lines things will get better for Mony. Conclusion: Debatable ISSUES

      7. “Players are regressing”. This is an interesting one for me, as last year nearly everyone progressed whereas this year the feeling of many seems to be that nearly everyone is regressing. To that I do not agree.

      Progressing this year from last year: Gaudreau, Colborne, Bollig, Jones, Engelland, TJ Brodie, Kulak and Bennett. All of these are significant though of course some, like Gaudreau have more impact on the team because of how they are utilized.

      Regressing: Monahan, Russell, Hiller, and Ramo. Monahan has taken on A responsibilities which I think may be impacting his thinking, but also is struggling due to line switching and bad luck. Russell has been all over the place, good and bad and the goalies just haven’t been steady and come through behind some terrible team play to start the season.

      About the Same: Giordano, Wideman, Ortio, Raymond, Hudler, Backlund, Jooris and Stajan. These have been pretty similar to last year, in both good and bad ways with both stellar play at times but also some poor games. Ortio has been a poor early-season guy and hasn’t really gotten enough work yet to determine how he’ll do over the season.

      New Players: Frolik has been terrific and driving play and making others better almost every game. Kulak came in injury relief and not only played steady but made the pairing with Engelland pretty solid, which most here think is stating the miraculous. Hamilton has taken some time to adjust to new players and systems, and it didn’t help for him to get thrust right into the top pairing when Brodie got injured. He has turned things around and is getting stronger.

      Conclusion: Its a WASH

      8. “The System is out-dated/broken”. I don’t agree with the System is broken excuse, though clearly opponents are defending against some of the key elements from last year e.g. the long breakout pass. I believe adjustments are being made and we are seeing more carrying the puck out and supported line breakout and I expect that to continue.

      In addition, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, it seems to me the D scheme has changed dramatically since last year. Specifically we don’t see as much PP-Homeplate-Box defence as last year but rather it appears to me that we are playing a modified area/man-to-man D. This seems to open the ice up more, results in fewer blocks and improves the possession game, which is up dramatically from last year (especially the past 5-6 games). Unfortunately this D requires more individual responsibility and breakdowns are more obvious, which we have been seeing. I’m liking the progression of the system and believe these are necessary growing pains.

      As an aside, our possession Corsi stats are MUCH better than last year (especially last 5-6 games), up 6-8 %pts from last year, which I’m surprised are not being hailed as MASSIVE IMPROVEMENT by the site’s writers who harped on our bad Corsi last year. Last year we got no explanations on Success with the bad Corsi except Lambert’s continual “LUCK” and this year no explanations for the lack of success with our good Corsi. Make up your minds i.e. commendations on the successes we have had, will you guys?

      9. “BH has a terrible record”. As I and many others have stated in earlier comments, success is and should be relative to reasonable expectations. BH is sub-0.500, true but let’s look at last year as an example. EVERYONE expected last year’s team to be bottom of the league or close to it. Reasonably that would like be in the 60-70 point range for the season. Instead the team got what, 96 points which is an improvement of 25-40 points over expectations. THAT to me is due to many things, but great coaching was one of the keys.

      That said ClayBort and others have been leading the charge saying BH is terrible and needs to be fired, and throwing out irrelevant facts about other coaches in the past. Look, in this game virtually EVERY coach gets fired at least once and many several times. That’s the way it works and most of the time it is unsupportable and not a reflection particularly on the coach, but the reality of big $ contracts, limited trading availability and easiest change/biggest impact syndrome. I’m under no illusion about BH and agree he may get fired at some point, justified or not but at this time I don’t see the evidence he should even be considered for such. Conclusion: NOT

  • Derbyherb

    Look, you can have opinions like Hartley should be fired and lay that out well and I might even agree with that, but when you start talking “he’s lost the room”? That’s a presumptuous statement. Are you in the room? How are you extrapolating from what we’ve seen that he’s lost the room?

  • Ken V.

    You do NOT fire a Jack Adams winning coach the very next season after a shaky start. I do not know who this article was written to appease but I doubt very many flames fans see the point of this nonsensical post or give it any credit. The arrogance of ‘hockey people’ is also getting old. Treat your readers with respect – we are the ones who keep the nhl going and you guys a team to write about. Your ‘insights’ are no better than the next guy.

    • Ken V.

      Couldn’t agree more!

      Let the bandwaggon jumping Canicklehead fans hop on and off their waggon, we don’t need them here!

      We need patience, let the system do its thing. This is a successful team that’s got to tighten up defensively!

  • CapeBretonOilers

    Seriously though, here is the issue. The flames were not supposed to be better than Edmonton last year. I am not trolling here by saying this but last year, the Oilers needed the coach change and the Flames got lucky. They played hard and never gave up, but I think they got lucky. I did cheer for the Flames in the playoffs last year I promise and I am a dedicated Canada team supporter (except Vancouver lol) but the Flames are doing exactly what they should be doing, you guys just got all hyped up because of the lucky streak last year. Last year was supposed to be this year, and this year was supposed to be last year. I love your coach and I think the Flames will be going backwards by firing him. I think you guys will make the playoffs, don’t panic just yet. Your coach is fine. The odds are doing what they are supposed to do !