When we closed out November, there was an undercurrent of dread among those of us that follow (and cover) the Calgary Flames. The team was not good. The roster? On paper, it was good. But the team had failed to coalesce as anticipated, and as a result the finger-pointing had begun.
The most common person facing the blame for the team’s underwhelming play? Reigning Jack Adams Award winner Bob Hartley, Calgary’s head coach.
However, two factors have combined to probably save Hartley’s job – at least for now. First, Calgary’s won a lot recently – albeit usually in ugly, unconventional, and frustrating ways. When December began, the Flames were 9 points out of the playoffs and tied for last place overall. Today, the Flames are tied for a playoff spot and 5 points out of last place.
But arguably more importantly, the nature of the coaching staff that Hartley has cobbled together has insulated him somewhat from an in-season firing. Because of these factors, he may be out of the woods.
The Flames’ coaching staff consists of five individuals: head coach Bob Hartley, associate coach Jacques Cloutier, assistant coach Martin Gelinas, goalie coach Jordan Sigalet and video coach Jamie Pringle.
Pringle is the lone holdover from the prior coaching regime, having been hired prior to Brent Sutter’s last season as Flames coach in June 2011. The majority of the coaching staff came together in the summer of 2012: Hartley was hired in May, followed quickly by his erstwhile sidekick Cloutier in June and the hiring of the relatively inexperienced Gelinas later that month. Sigalet was hired as goalie coach in Abbotsford in August 2011 and promoted to replace Clint Malarchuk in August 2014.
Here’s the question: if you fire Hartley, who do you also have to necessarily get rid of?
If the reason you axe the head coach is because the special teams aren’t very good, you probably should necessarily also eliminate the Hartley lieutenants that run those systems. In addition, Cloutier and Hartley are a package deal – they coached together in Colorado and Zurich – so if Hartley leaves, Cloutier probably leaves, too. And given that Gelinas has only ever worked with Hartley, there may be a degree of loyalty there as well. (And given how much Calgary’s goaltending has struggled this season, a new head coach would probably also mean a new goalie coach.)
And the second question emerges: if you fire Hartley, who is there that can step in to right the ship? Ryan Huska is only in his second year as coach of the Flames’ AHL affiliate, and the on-ice results have been fairly mixed between Adirondack and Stockton. Huska is still learning to be an effective professional coach, and from a resource development standpoint it’s probably not smart to rush him into the NHL. So if not Huska, then who?
The Flames are winning games now, something they weren’t doing before. And even though they’re winning games in bewildering, frustrating fashion, the fact that any coaching change in Calgary would probably need to be a complete overhaul of the staff and the challenges of making such a wholesale change mid-season has probably taken some of the heat off of Hartley. For now, he’s probably out of the woods.
But I wouldn’t rule out a change happening in the off-season should the current coaching staff be unable to correct any of the foundational structural issues with the team’s play – especially their defensive-zone structure and their inability to play effective special teams hockey.