Was firing Bob Hartley the right move?

The first quarter of the 2016-17 season for the Calgary Flames has been tough to swallow. They’re well below .500, they can’t get out of their way on special teams, and highly paid star players are playing underwhelming hockey. 

I take calls and read texts after every Flames game and follow along as best I can on social media, and I can tell you there’s been plenty of handwringing over Calgary’s decision to fire Bob Hartley in May. Did the Flames make the right call? For me there’s a very definitive answer.

While I think it’s too early to tell, good or bad, whether Calgary hired the right replacement in Glen Gulutzan, that conversation is for another day. This article is less to do with the current coaching staff and more about the decision to divest from the old one, because I do think they’re separate topics. Hartley did some good things for the Flames, but with such a frustrating start to this season, I think it’s important to point out why it was the right choice to move on.

Results

I’m not forgetting the magical 2014-15 season, nor am I overlooking the fact Hartley won the Jack Adams Trophy that year. The fact is, though, that season was the result of incredible good fortune which, as we saw for much of last year, didn’t end up being sustainable. While Hartley endeared himself to many fans during that logic defying run, we have to take a look at the bigger picture to truly gauge his success.

Unfortunately, that big picture isn’t overly impressive. It may surprise you to know Hartley’s 294 games behind the Flames bench makes him the second longest tenured coach in team history, behind only Bob Johnson. With a record of 134-135-25 in four seasons, Hartley’s 0.498 win percentage ranks 10th of Calgary’s 15 coaches in franchise history. But even that is a little misleading.

If you take the 2014-15 season out of the equation, Hartley’s record looks significantly worse. In fact, under Hartley, the Flames had three of their more mediocre campaigns ever. Below is a look at the team’s 10 worst seasons by win percentage and who was behind the bench. The asterisks denotes the 2012-13 campaign as a shortened season due to a lockout.

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Three of Hartley’s seasons as head coach saw the team fall well short of the postseason, with the playoff year in 2014-15 being the outlier. Of course wins and losses can’t be taken as gospel because context is important, too. Hartley’s teams certainly had a talent deficit to teams coached by names like Johnson, Crisp, and the other Sutter, and we’ll explore that shortly. From a strictly results perspective, though, Hartley didn’t get the job done when looking at the entire body of work.

Underlying Numbers

One of the biggest complaints during Hartley’s tenure was how poor his teams were on the possession side of things. Indeed, the Flames were routinely outshot over that four-year span and regularly spent more time in their own zone than at the attacking end of the ice. The most damning thing about this was the team’s lack of any real progression in this area over four seasons as illustrated below.

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Over a four-year arc, Calgary improved their raw possession numbers by 0.6% with a massive dip in the middle. So, yes, Hartley’s teams definitely had a talent drop-off even when compared to the prior three years under Brent Sutter, but that isn’t enough to excuse virtually no progression in their ability to generate offence.

Even more telling is a look at the Flames in comparison to the rest of the NHL in the same four year span. Below is an aggregate look at where Calgary slotted in raw possession for the duration of Hartley’s tenure.

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A team is supposed to progress under a coach, especially over a sizeable period of time like four years. Perhaps the Flames grew in other areas under Hartley, but they certainly didn’t in a league dominated by possession. The best teams in this league are all strong in this area and it’s no coincidence the seven teams above have a combined four playoff appearances between them.

Conclusion

Much like many fans of the Flames, I quite enjoyed Bob Hartley’s time behind the bench. He was funny, affable, told great stories and presided over a playoff season many of us won’t soon forget. I also think Hartley did some good things during his four years as head coach.

The Flames were as hard working and well-conditioned as you could possibly be under Hartley while numerous players thrived under him, especially in the latter few years. Players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, and T.J. Brodie all posted multiple career high seasons while playing for Hartley. I’m not saying his tenure was all bad by any stretch.

Unfortunately, though, the good didn’t outweigh the bad. Not only were Calgary’s possession numbers stagnant under Hartley, the team also made very few adjustments in the way they played. The Flames were too reliant on the stretch pass, scoring off the rush, and blocking shots for their success, all of which were adjusted to quite easily last season.

For me, the jury is still out on Gulutzan and his new coaching staff. At the time of this article, Calgary is four games below .500 through 21 games, which is just too small a sample size for me to judge one way or the other. I don’t know yet if the Flames got the right guy to replace Hartley, but I do know the time was right for them to have to go down that road.

  • redhot1

    Hartley was, by almost every measure, a bad coach. End of story.

    Anyone who wants Hartley back doesn’t have a clue. Not saying GG is any better though.

  • EhPierre

    Hartley was great at motivating his players to give it their all each and every game but his style of coaching was inefficient and would not lead to long term success; we’ve seen the effects of Hartley’s coaching against Anaheim in the playoffs. Shutdown the top line and the team is done

    GG on the other hand, preaches a style that will lead to long term success. Sure it may seem boring to watch and GG looks like a wax statue 90% of the game but his coaching is the type of coaching that’s instilled in CHI, LA, STL, etc. The only problem is our top players are not enjoying playing under it which I don’t blame them since they were used to pond hockey playing under Hartley. If GG can modify his coaching to allow his star players be creative while still playing a structured game, and if we can fix our special teams, this team will be going places.

    I know everyone’s beeng saying the season’s done, and I too believed it for some time however, the Flames have been in it for most the game despite our star player being injured, despite Mony being a pylon, despite our top defenders playing average, despite our garbage special teams. If we can fix half of those problems, playoffs can be attainable. Stay hopeful guys, we still got a long season ahead of us

    • FeyWest

      Basically if you want to keep your sanity, stay away from all comments and forum boards awhile longer because they are very Jekyll & Hyde… much like our consistency and playing in front of Elliott compared to Johnson.

  • Christian Roatis

    This article perfectly summarizes my thoughts on the whole situation.

    It’s not that Glen Gulutzan is the right choice, it’s that Bob Hartley was the wrong one.

    • everton fc

      Glen Gulutzan over Boudreau? One could argue GG was the wrong choice, as well.

      But I agree – the PP, and at times the PK, are what’s killing us. GG may have the boys on the right track. I am now feeling they may actually be able to come back when they’re behind. Didn’t have this feeling a few games ago.

  • Dan the flames fan

    Although this article and study was primarily focused on possession rates, I think it’s missing context for the Hartley years. Year 1 was noted as a team in dire need of a rebuild; an old team getting older.
    Year 2 had some transition and some training with SM coming into the fold, and truthfully this really was the year the rebuild started, which meant that BH’s systems and philosophies would be implemented. What the rest of the league noticed was that if they were going to get points from Calgary, they were going to have to earn them from a hard working team.
    The 3rd year had JH join the team and enough fresh faces that the league didn’t know what to expect. I think it was less about a lucky season and more so that the team wanted to compete no matter the cost (something I haven’t seen much this year). SM stepped up, and JH was unknown as an NHLer.
    Last year was BH’s major issue, as I don’t think he anticipated that the league now knew how the Flames had surprised them the year before and adapted. Hartley did not. The goaltending debacle did not help the cause, but many noted in other rantings that with a good goaltender, Calgary would not have lost some of the closer games, and then last year would have been very different.

    Was Hartley a good possession coach? No, but he was a good motivator and had players playing to potential and in some cases, beyond. He was able to recognize players skills and talents, and allow them into the game.

    GG has improved the possession, but I fail to see the same attitude and work ethic. Hence, we hold the puck longer, but lose on low scoring, and deflated play.

  • First Name Unidentified

    flames wouldn’t be any worse this year if Hartley was still coaching. Hiring Gulutzan was an error of exponential proportions.

    I have emotionally graduated from the stage of anger and denial on his hiring. He doesn’t bother me anymore.

  • jupiter

    Always wondered how Gelanais kept his job but appears to have nothing to do with the current coaching staff.

    Hartley is old news! He filled in quite well for a team in transistion,gave the fans something to cheer about, and was let go so the team could move forward.

    Our possession numbers have improved. But that hardly makes up for the poor special teams.GG.s brand of hockey is not the most entertaining game to watch either, and I’m guessing that’s why we keep talking about Hartley. Thank goodness we have young Tkachuk and Hathaway to at least supply some entertainment.

  • smatic10

    Yes, it was undeniably the right move.

    If you replace the dead weight on this team and get an assistant coach that can actually coach a PP, we will be a playoff team. Unfortunately Tree doesn’t have a magic button that will accomplish that quickly. So the team needs to find a way to be consistent otherwise we’ll be out of the race pretty quick here. Forget Gully’s lack of emotion and questionable decisions, he has turned this team into a possession team and also a team that wins faceoffs (two very important things for long term success). I’m still giving him a chance.

    We have too much talent on paper to have this poor of a record.

  • If the Flames had made the playoffs in spring 2016 then Bob Hartley would have kept his job over the summer. Assuming that he wouldn’t have changed his coaching staff nor his system, Flames still sign Elliot and Johnson, I concede the possession numbers would have been just as bad as usual. But would Monahan have been injured? Would the defence, PP and PK have regressed as far as they have under Gulutzan? Would he have told his players to go start fights with any player who slashes Johnny Gaudreau? If Hartley was still here the Flames wouldn’t be improving for the long term but, in the short term, we’d probably have a couple more wins under at this point in the season and Gaudreau wouldn’t be out for 4-8 weeks. Looking ahead in this what-if scenario maybe the 2015 and 2016 playoff-qualifying, Harltey-led Flames barely make it into the 2017 playoffs and then go on a tear of upsets in the first, second and third rounds like in 2004. Just saying.

    • Dan the flames fan

      If Hartley had made more wins last season, the “long term” would not have likely even be a conversation. We have already established that BH was not a possession coach; but look solely at the motivation he instilled by pushing the player, and for backing up the players on the ice.

      So far, I can’t say I’m impressed with the level of on ice support GG has shown. Has he even questioned a refs call? Hartley not only questioned calls, but would argue calls, and advocate for the players on the ice. I haven’t seen that yet. We’ve already established the officiating has often been suspect, and yet, too often there is silence on the bench.

      All these points question GG’s abilities to be the head coach. I have no problem giving him stats and analysis; I just don’t think he is head coach material.

  • Xcameron

    So if GG isn’t the right coach do we have the right GM? It’s still too early to answer the GG question but if the answer turns out to be no, how do you let him go without questioning the guy that hired him?

    • kittensandcookies

      Eventually it’ll come down to that.

      But people just seem to love BT.

      Flames’ ownership have never been one for sentiment; if BT doesn’t get them into the playoffs soon, he’s gone.

      • First Name Unidentified

        On the contrary, Flames management has historically only worried about the renewal of the corporate accounts for season tickets. Now that oil is in the gutter, and our princess Notley and prince Trudeau wanna tax the crap out of corporations they better worry about putting a good product on the ice.

  • calgaryfan

    Hartley was not a good coach. The Flames are not a good team. Hard to blame GG for the lack of talent, that is on Tre and Burke. I am afraid the Flames are going to regret the Monahan and Gio contracts. I think they over estimated where this team is in the rebuild.

    • One Eyed Jack

      Not a fan of GG so far. Show some emotion for gawd sake. Worse that could happen?…your team feeds off of it. Tre gets lots of criticism for handing out contracts, but lot’s of poster’s also critisize him for not caving in to J Hockey’s demands. Can’t have it both way folks.

  • OKG

    I don’t think the Flames got better without Hartley at 5 on 5. We’re getting more corsi but it’s all from the lower lines and pairs which is pretty useless. The top players have the same or worse possession numbers but are getting much fewer scoring chances.

  • RKD

    Hartley seemed to get the maximum out of guys like Gaudreau and Monahan before they signed their big contracts. However, some of his decisions were very puzzling like his usage of Backlund, his constant need to put Bollig in the line up. I think his record could have been better if he had better goaltending. Yeah under Harltey the team did play uptempo and a more entertaining brand but he did nothing for our possession game. He got less than stellar reviews in the player exit meeting. Last season Hartley couldn’t make the needed adjustments every team in the league figured out the stretch pass.

  • NHL93

    I usually hate commenting on intangibles as I am not in the dressing room or attend the team practices, but Under Hartley this team had an identity. Something this current team lacks. Is that something that the players need to rectify, or is it something the Coach and the GM need to address? Probably a bit of both.