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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.