On Tuesday night, Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley ignited a proverbial firestorm when he scratched Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Lance Bouma for disciplinary reasons. The reigning Jack Adams winner has drawn both praise and criticism for the move, which we all first learned about mid-afternoon on Tuesday and which became official shortly before the team took the ice for the pre-game warm-up.
Praise Hartley for his gumption or criticize him for a potentially rash move, but keep one thing in mind: once it was reported that those players had been late for practice on Monday morning, he was basically painted into a corner.
He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.
DAMNED IF HE DID
Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Flames were eight points out of the playoffs with 31 games left to play. While it’s probably unrealistic to say that they have a good shot at making the post-season, it’s also probably unrealistic for a team with that much runway left in the season to throw in the towel with two months left in their schedule. For a team that’s still building itself a winning culture on and off the ice, throwing away games by benching the team’s best offensive players is rather counter-intuitive.
Heck, the Flames have healthy scratched Jakub Nakladal umpteen times this season under the auspices that they’re still trying to make the playoffs and cannot afford to try guys out. Yet they park Gaudreau, Monahan and Bouma to prove a point.
Oh, and the team is in the midst of negotiations to re-up Gaudreau and Monahan long-term, and there’s a chance that scratching them from a game down the stretch that the team needed to win could make negotiations a tad awkward. Granted, neither Gaudreau nor Monahan have arbitration rights (and the Flames would likely match any offer sheet), but if the idea is these guys are the foundation of a dynasty – stop laughing – then this isn’t the easiest way to cement that relationship.
And the argument I’m most sympathetic with is the economic one. The Flames are in the entertainment business. In a city that’s been battered by the low oil prices – and on a day where Husky gassed 400 jobs – the Flames benched two of their players with the most marquee value. A lot of folks were bound to be mad about that.
With all that said, I still think Hartley had to do it.
DAMNED IF HE DIDN’T
Last season, Hartley crowed about how easy the team was to coach. Nobody ever missed a meeting, I vaguely recall him saying on garbage bag day last season. The Flames were a beautiful thing. Birds in flight! 23+ guys working in unison.
This season? On most nights, to borrow a phrase from Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson, they look like 19 guys waiting for Johnny Gaudreau to do something. The cohesion has been spotty, at best, and the team has been really inconsistent and guilty of freelancing on several occasions. If you’re Hartley, regardless of any team rule violations, what better way is there to knock some sense into the group than benching their safety net and forcing them to rely on each other for wins rather than leaning on Gaudreau?
Furthermore, once the story broke that players were late for practice – an obvious violation of team rules – Hartley basically had his hand forced. If the hockey world knew that the team’s best players strolled in late and there wasn’t an obvious punishment, you might as well have cleaned out Hartley’s desk and driven him to the airport. He would’ve lost credibility with the fans, the media and, most importantly, the locker room. He would’ve looked complete ineffectual as a leader if there weren’t consequences.
And for a team that’s really lacked cohesion on the ice this season, you absolutely cannot have one set of rules for the team’s stars and one set of rules for everybody else. If the team is going to somehow pull themselves out of the basement and get into a playoff spot, they need to have everybody on the same page. And what better way of doing that than making an example of two guys that the team relies upon to win games (and Bouma), and doing it in a manner in which the entire hockey world knows what was going on.
At today’s practice, Hartley protested (regarding the media) “You guys are creating a tsunami in a fishbowl.”
You’re honestly telling me that one of the NHL’s most media savvy individuals, the coach that probably has a gigantic white-board full of zingers and one-liners to trot out during media availabilities (and a guy that’s worked with TSN in the past) wouldn’t know that the media would get his message across to his players for him?
SUM IT UP
Time will tell if Hartley scratching the trio was the right move or the smart move. But given the circumstances, particularly how public the rule violations became, it was a move that Hartley absolutely had to make.