Bob Hartley’s tenure as the Flames’ head coach is over.
Though I found the timing of his dismissal somewhat surprising, I nevertheless agree with it in principle. Treliving’s remarks on the matter are apropos: in many ways the club seems to have peaked under the current bench boss. A fresh perspective is needed if the team is to take a real step forward.
Though I was never an ardent Hartley fan, I think he did some things right during his time here. The problem is the things he did wrong he didn’t seem to know how to fix. When a coach has run out of answers of glaring tactical issues, you need to move on.
– First off, a celebration of some of Hartley’s strengths. It’s undeniable that many of the younger, central pieces took significant steps forward under his tutelage in Calgary. From T.J. Brodie to Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary now has a young, established core of players which the next guy gets to leverage.
It’s difficult to assign blame or praise to a coach when it comes to a player’s development – at the very least we know the wrong kind of boss can stifle a player’s growth. One only need to look at Hartley’s lone failure during his time in Calgary for an object example of that (Sven Baertschi). Most of the kids, outside of Sven, were given room and time to breathe.
– Hartley also seemed to have everyone pulling in the same direction. While we may debate if it was the right direction, the club never descended into a sort of disheveled anarchy which can be typical of a rebuilding squad (see: the Edmonton Oilers).
To put it bluntly: the Flames at least looked like an NHL-caliber team during a majority of his time here. At the onset of this rebuild there was a non-trivial chance the club would fall into Buffalo Sabres/Edmonton Oilers levels of hopelessness. Though that may have helped the organization’s draft placement over the last few drafts, recovering from systemic chaos can be a rather difficult chore.
– This somewhat speaks to the “intangible” side of coaching. That is, Hartley seemed capable of controlling the narrative, ensuring different conflicts and personalities didn’t take over the dressing room and drive a wedge between players, coaches and management.
This seems like the base requirement of professional coaches and decision makers I think, but it’s a threat in any team-based activity and especially problematic in a testosterone fuelled environment filled with alpha male types. Through his four years at the helm, Hartley seemed to provide a steady hand on the reins.
– What got Hartley fired isn’t his ability to command respect and cohesion from his players. It was his inability to craft a truly effective modern defensive system. The Flames’ offense and ability to generate steadily improved in concert with an improving roster during the Hartley era. What consistently lagged was their ability to deny shots and control the flow of play.
– In 2012-13, when the club sold off parts and committed to a rebuild, the Flames allowed 57.26/60 shot attempts against. Four years later, with a new nucleus in place which includes T.J. Brodie, Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, Michael Frolik, Sean Monahan and Johhny Gaudreau the Flames gave up…58.26/60 shot attempts against.
– Since 2012, the Flames rank as the fourth worst team in the league in terms of surrendering shots against. Their corsi against/60 rate (CA/60) of 59.6 was only better than the Toronto Maple Leafs (62.5), Buffalo Sabres (62.0) and Colorado Avalanche (61.41). Yes, even the Edmonton Oilers averaged slightly less pucks against at 5on5 during that period (59.47).
– Hartley was a big advocate of the box out and collapse style of defense. This method cedes puck control along the perimeter of the zone in exchange for clogging the middle of the ice. The idea is that giving up low quality shots/puck control is worth it if it lessens moderate and high quality chances against. It’s why he was such a vocal admirer of blocked shots and why he was such a fan of Kris Russell.
We hope to take a more in-depth look this summer to see just how these tactics were manifest under Hartley.
– Unfortunately, allowing a lot of shots and defensive zone time against tends to be a losing long-term strategy in the NHL. Controlling the play, disrupting the attack and tilting the ice in your favour tends to have stronger long-term outcomes in the league. As I have noted previously, a team’s chances of making the playoffs are above 70% with a possession rate of 52% or above. In contrast, that plunges to around a 2% chance when the possession rate falls to 45%.
– Can a coaching change have a positive effect in underlying numbers? Or do the Flames simply need to improve their roster? In my series on big gainers last summer, we saw that modern bottom feeders who eventually made the jump up to contenders almost all did after a meaningful change behind the bench: Chicago Blackhawks (Quenneville), L.A. Kings (Sutter), St. Louis Blues (Hitchcock).
Other recent examples include the Nashville Predators (Laviolette) and this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins:
Pre-Sullivan – PIT CF60 = 52.0 (17th), CA60 = 55.7 (27th). Post-Sullivan – PIT CF60 = 59.6 (2nd), CA60 = 48.1 (3rd) – virtually same roster
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) May 6, 2016
Johnston had the Pens playing a very very defensive system that didn’t push play enough remotely.
— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) May 6, 2016
This year, thanks to a change behind the bench, the Pens went from a negative possession club (-3.7 corsi/60) to one of the strongest in the entire league (+11.5 corsi/60). That’s a massive swing and a dramatic illustration of an improved system. As Burtch notes in his tweet, it was almost the same roster (less some trade deadline-type tweaking).
– This is relevant to the Flames because they are entering the next phase of their rebuild: one where major stepwise improvements in their roster are much less likely. Calgary will be a constrained cap team moving forward as guys like Gaudreau, Monahan, Giordano, Brodie and Bennett get more expensive. The last significant step for Treliving is to add a legitimate starting goaltender; after that, the core is more or less set. What’s left is optimizing the supporting cast and managing the budget as well as possible.
As such, the team needs to transition from basement dweller to playoff contender as early as next season. The age of lowered expectations has come to an end. This is why Treliving no doubt felt pressure to find a guy who can pull a “Sullivan” and markedly improve the team’s underlying numbers. “Draft high” changes to “win now” as soon as Gaudreau and Monahan sign their shiny, new (expensive) contracts.