Random Thoughts – On Bob Hartley

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:

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. 

      • Burnward

        Kent, how much of this you put on BT?

        Obvious issues like goaltending, second unit PP QB were never addressed.

        Hartley seemed to get hung out to dry a bit.

          • Burnward

            But I would suggest that the rebound control of these goaltenders was absolutely abysmal.

            As was most of their everything this year.

            Small wingers that can’t win puck battles on the boards to get a puck out.

            These things also add to negative shot attempts against.

            They did actually outshoot their opponents when it comes to real shots though.

        • Greg

          The goaltending is obviously on BT, but I don’t think anyone thinks he can’t fix it or has shown he’s gone as far as he can yet.

          BH on the other hand kept failing to adjust even as the roster improved. Sure he couldn’t put a better goalie in net, but he didn’t need to be playing engelland more than Hamilton, for example.

          I don’t think he got hung out to dry. He did some great work steering the team throw the low of a rebuild (which lets not kid ourselves, going through that, and a GM change, with only 1 coach is incredible and he should be commended for doing that). But I fully agree with BT that he wasn’t going to be able to go further, and that’s based on what he did with what he had, not being blamed for something he didn’t have.

          • Burnward

            Fair points for sure.

            From day one last year for me, it was goaltending. I figured we were in big trouble.

            Right now we’re the Cleveland Browns of goalies. This, more than any other thing concerns me.

          • Cfan in Vic

            If the goaltending was better this year, maybe BH is still the coach. Maybe not.

            I think that bad goal tending only helped exposed something that was pretty important for the club to address at this juncture. That there were strategic flaws to deal with, and the club should seek out someone who can adapt their systems a bit better. Even after the story book playoffs last year (and decent goaltending), BT stated that the team needed to play a different style to be effective in the long term. I don’t think he saw enough of the desired transition to be happy with BH going forward.

            Goaltending was bad, but I don’t believe that was the reason BH was fired.

          • piscera.infada

            This. Exactly this. The goaltending definitely did bottom out, and that is on Treliving to some extent–although, I’m pretty certain that no one honestly believed Hiller and Ramo would be that bad to start (or in Hiller’s case, never actually recover).

            All of this said, the goaltending and by extension, the poor season was not the primary reason Hartley was fired. Optically it was as good a time as any, but many of the issues that led to his dismissal as coach manifest themselves during the surprisingly good times of the 2014-15 season.

            There is no greater case-study in Hartley’s failure to adapt than every single game played against the Ducks in the last two years. I’m serious here, if you think it’s a matter of “the team simply not matching up well” or “the team being too small”, or “just a thing that happens against the Ducks”, watch every single Ducks’ game. The Flames routinely attacked and defended in the same way, and had meagre (if any) success doing so.

        • DoubleDIon

          2nd unit PP QB? Do you mean on the half-wall like Gaudreau or on the blueline?

          If you mean the former I agree, if you mean the latter you’re out to lunch. No one else in the league has 4 offensive defensemen as good as the Flames.

        • I think the roster generally improved under Hartley. From guys like Gaudreau and Monahan springing fully formed into the NHL, Brodie maturing into a top- defender, to Treliving adding Hamilton and Frolik last off-season.

          There were certainly still gaps which is why I wouldn’t realistically expect the team to be a contender yet. That said, I don’t think the Flames should STILL be surrendering such a high amount of shots against given their personnel.

        • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

          “second unit PP QB”

          Dude, I am pretty sure that he brought Dougie in to play a part on the PP, and don’t forget that Wideman was very good on the PP last year.

          It would have been quite reasonable to think that with Gio, Wideman, Hamilton and Brodie that the Flames had and still have enough good PP D-men to have that 2nd PP QB you think was needed.

          Even if we somehow manage to get rid of Wideman, next year we will still have Gio and Hamilton with Brodie on the 2nd unit.

          What’s the problem?

          The PP sucked because they only ever had a 4 man PP unit. The 5th player on the unit was quite often (at least at the start of the year) a black hole.

          Not to mention Hartley loved to use Russell on the PP as well.

          • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

            With D-men like we have they need to make sure that the high PK’ers are pulled out to the point so that Johnny can work off the 1/2 boards (I feel stupid calling the boards the wall).

            And if that is the case, tell me why both PP units should work the same system? I would like to see different looks out there, wouldn’t you?

        • Kevin R

          Last I checked we started the year with the same goalies that got us to the 2nd round of the playoffs the year before. Not sure you hang the GM completely that all the goaltenders crapped the bed in unison. I would say this year would be the “shame on me” lynching if he doesn’t address the goalie situation. Which is why no way no how Ramo & Ortio are the 1-2 goalies next October.

          Glad to see Hamonic is now off the market & wants to stay in NYI. That just shut a potential top 2 D from the Oil. Maybe they have to use # 4 for D.

          I think a young up & coming coach would be great but if that happens, expect a new position being created as a Advisory Coach that will mentor like Burke ala Treliving. Carlyle or Darryl Sutter may find a position like that attractive.

  • Craftmatic4.0

    Thank the gods, we did not land Boudreau! I watched the Ducks play a boring style of hockey with a modern trap! At least Hartley was true to his word! First interview I saw he claimed we were gonna play an entertaining style of hockey and this became true! I was at the Dome for game 6 defeat against the Nuck!(best $1K ever spent) Bob will always get some respect from me!!

    • piscera.infada

      I’ve thought all along–even before Hartley was let go–that whenever they relieved Hartley of his duties, Treliving and Burke would be more likely hire to a young, up and coming, but inexperienced coach.

      Now, we can argue back and forth about whether it’s the “right” move or not, but obviously it’s going to come down to hiring the right person, regardless of if it’s a re-tread, or not.

      Personally, I think it’s the right move. I feel it’s also the direction the NHL is heading with the likes of Cooper, Hackstall, Sullivan, and others. New blood is a good thing in the new NHL. I feel that the organizations that are ahead of the curve in this regard will reap huge dividends in the years to come. Granted, it’s just the feel I get, and is in no way gospel. It just makes sense to me, looking a systemic trends and the way the game is moving.

      Again, all of that said, it’s still going to come down to hiring the “right” up and comer.

      • I wonder if we already have a good IP and comer already in the Flames organization with Martin Gelinas. I’ve never read anything about him being groomed to be a head coach nor whether he’s seriously interested. It just seems like he should get the chance to interview for the job as he’s already an assistant coach.

        • King Quong

          Apparently Gelinas was in charge of special teams so there’s that. But who knows maybe he would do it differently as head coach and with free reign it is possible Hartley insisted it be done a certain way even if Gelinas would rather another.

      • Greg

        Agreed. But hopefully they are better at assessing the “right” up and comer than all the teams that clamoured over Dallas Eakins, for example (psst, Dallas, Corsi does not mean throwing all pucks at net == more wins).

        I have to admit, I’m nervous… This has a non-trivial chance of going very sideways. Where some teams got it very right (quenville, Sutter, etc), other teams got it very wrong and descended into coaching carrousels and “chaos” as Kent put it.

        • piscera.infada

          I have to admit, I’m nervous… This has a non-trivial chance of going very sideways. Where some teams got it very right (quenville, Sutter, etc), other teams got it very wrong and descended into coaching carrousels and “chaos” as Kent put it.

          No doubt, but I mean, that goes for any possible hire right? They could have hired Boudreau and it could have gone sideways as well. Granted, that’s less likely, but one could easily argue that the rewards are potentially greater with the unknown quantity.

          Tough call, but I’ve long been an advocate of the “up and comer” simply because re-treads generally don’t offer anything new. The biggest thing for management to keep in mind here is matching the coach not only to the way they want the team to play, but also to the personalities in the room. The last year or so has given me a pretty good deal of confidence in this management group’s ability to see “the bigger picture”. Hope it stays that way.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    WRT Hitch and his demeanor, the HNIC crew mentioned that he knows that if he screams at his players on the bench when the play is stopped, it will get caught on camera, but if he does it while the play is happening, the cameras are looking elsewhere. So that’s what he does, and he has lost the respect of some of his players for it.

  • Derzie

    This comes off as cherry-picking. To analyse a coach and not measure wins, losses, playoffs and standings is incomplete. Possession related stats are a necessary but incomplete platform. This is why there are ‘wars’ between stats supporters and traditional eye-test people. If your not using both methods you’re missing the point. They are not mutually exclusive.

  • beloch

    It’s an unfortunate thing, but entertaining hockey systems, as the Flames used under Hartley, tend to consistently lose to systems that stifle creativity (and chances) in favour of suppressing the other team’s offence. Darryl Sutter’s brand of hockey is nowhere nearly as exciting to watch as Hartley’s, but it got a relatively untalented (at the time) Flames club to the Stanley Cup finals (that puck was in!) and it’s allowed the Kings to hoist the cup twice since then.

    While high-event systems aren’t going to win you the cup, they’re probably not the worst thing for a team to use when it’s introducing a player as insanely creative as Gaudreau to the NHL game. Would Gaudreau have been a point-per-game player under Sutter? Probably not. It’s also not a bad thing to use during a rebuilding phase, because at least your team is scoring goals. In addition to entertaining the fans in inflates the players’ counting stats and makes it easier to trade up.

    The next coach Treliving hires is going to use a lower event system. This is pretty safe to say. We’re going to see a lot of this club’s offensive numbers dry up. Scoring is going to become more of a problem. Hopefully Gaudreau is simply so exceptional that he will continue to produce in a more stifling system, but a lot of other players are going to see their counting stats crater next season. Presumably, the Flames will also start winning more games though.

    I think it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate Hartley for being the right coach at the right time. He sailed this club merrily through a couple of seasons that should have been real morale breakers. Now it’s time to start getting serious about winning.

      • beloch

        Chicago is 13th (highest) in CF60 and 14th (lowest) in CA60, so I’d call them a fairly middle-of-the-road team, although definitely lower event than the Flames were this season. They’re 13th (lowest) in total corsi events per game.

        T.B. is 14th in CF60 and 7th in CA60. They’re a strong defensive club that still gets chances. In terms of total corsi events per game, T.B. is seventh lowest in the league, so they’re fairly low-event.

        Both of these clubs give up fewer corsi events against per game and generate more in than their favor than the Flames did this season. That’s a big part of why they’re both in the second round of the playoffs.

        One thing that I do find surprising is that, in terms of total corsi events, the Flames weren’t in the top ten of the league this season. They’re actually 13th highest in the league, so just a bit above average. Honestly, I thought they played way looser than that this season!

        • Greatsave

          Care to share your source? The numbers I pulled from war-on-ice.com don’t quite line up with what you’re quoting. Maybe you’re using All-situation numbers, I don’t know.

          At 5v5 from this regular season:

          Chicago was 13th (most) in CF60, 15th (fewest) in CA60, 15th (most) in CP60.

          Tampa was 10th in CF60, 6th in CA60, 23rd in CP60.

          LA was 1st in CF60, 1st in CA60, 9th in CP60. (sidebar: that’s Darryl Sutter’s boring high-event Kings.)

          Anaheim was 7th in CF60, 7th in CA60, 18th in CP60.

          Dallas was 2nd in CF60, 19th in CA60, 1st in CP60.

          Calgary was 20th in CF60, 27th in CA60, 10th in CP60.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      I think there is a happy middle ground to this. Take away the stretch pass as the consistent breakout strategy and you have the puck a bit longer. Use the dump and chase with the players at full flight, then you have more of a chance of getting the puck back.

      What I found most frustrating was watching a shift of Johnny and Monahan spent in the D-zone. By the time they got the puck, they were at the end of the shift, so the puck was dumped.

      If you combine some of the good things the Flames do with teams that hold onto the puck longer, good things should happen. Johnny is more creative if he hangs onto the puck waiting for someone to get open. The powerplay is more impressive if the strategy isn’t simply “get the puck to the D-man and slap the puck at the net”. The PK is more effective if you actually do more than block a shot.

  • deantheraven

    Ok, so Gabby’s gone Wild and and the horizon is spotted with shadowy wannabe NHL coaches and some old retreads. But there’s a figure in view that we all can see, it’s just a question of “do we want Him?” Something tells me that Darryl Sutter might be a better option than most others. Ignoring his debacle as GM, as a coach he can still get results. And he might even be able to work with Gelinas, plus or minus an assistant or two. The question is, is he able to get more out of this young roster than he did with the aging Kings?

    Part of me would like to see a younger guy come in and build on what Hartley established, but there’s still a soft spot, some sentimental memory of ’04, that thinks that Sutter could come back and just coach and all the arrows would be pointing in the right direction for a long term contending team.he almost won it all here and he won it all twice in LA so he knows how that feels.He’d probably love being back close to home, and that might translate into a winning tradition. Just wonder if anyone else is pondering what I’m pondering, Pinky.

    • jakethesnail

      Yes! and the most exciting playoffs in over 25 years was when Darryl Sutter was our coach! And we should have won that sucker.

      It is interesting that D Sutter has not uet signed a new contract with LA…..likely hoping he could come back to Alberta.

  • OKG

    I think Hartley’s systems look pretty good when competently skilled hockey players are running them. Dallas Stars look pretty good playing high event hockey.

    Hartley’s systems don’t work with a slow #1C (Monahan) on a line with an undersized #2W (Hudler) or a slow #2W (Jones). or a slow #4C (Stajan) with an incompetent #9W (Bollig) or such.

    Hartley’s systems always looked best to me with the most competent players on the ice together (Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, TJ Brodie, Paul Byron, Michael Ferland, Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton, though there were soft individual plays he would make), David Schlemko, Mike Cammalleri. I think Hartley’s systems would have looked Dandy with a Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton, Zdeno Chara, Keith Yandle on roster.

    Alas though, I guess now we’ll play systems designed to mask the flaws of the Monahans and the Boumas and the Widemans and Engellands and Smids and Stajans and Bolligs. My only regret is never seeing Hartley’s systems in place with a completely rebuilt roster plus a little bit of modification on line change strategy.

    Hopefully our next coach is more Sullivan and less Boudreau.

  • Parallex

    @OKG “My only regret is never seeing Hartley’s systems in place with a completely rebuilt roster”

    Sure you have… they’re called the Montreal Canadiens (and it still didn’t work). For the record I think the Habs should have turfed Michel Therrien as well.

  • Greatsave

    To take the example of the Penguins as noted in the article:

    The CP60 before and after the coaching change this season are virtually the same; yet the CF% jumped from 48.3% to 55.3% (using Burtch’s numbers).

    The point here being: a new coach doesn’t necessarily have to implement a low-event system to get a team playing better both offensively and defensively.