The Calgary Flames had a big season. They defied the odds from beginning to end, breaking out as a rebuilding team to something perhaps a bit beyond that. Jiri Hudler established himself as a top scorer, Johnny Gaudreau a true talent in this league, Sean Monahan a blossoming top line two-way centre. Mark Giordano proved his 2013-14 season was no fluke, and TJ Brodie showed he had offensive chops without sacrificing outstanding defence.
And then there was the guy leading them all the way: Bob Hartley.
Initially tasked with getting an older edition of this team into the playoffs, the scene quickly flipped on Hartley mere months after arriving in Calgary. Suddenly, he was at the helm of a full-blown rebuild. He received new, young talent with which to work, providing some results better than others.
He demanded exceptional work ethic, and he got it. His training camps and practices became known as incredibly hard, and his players were up to the task. He had encouraging words for young players, and in most cases, put them in positions to thrive. Occasionally, his apparent bias ruled the lineup, but hey, he's only human.
Most important of all: Hartley made the Flames fun again. No matter how down they were, they never seemed to be out.
The Flames turned an aesthetic corner with Hartley, and for the better. Here's our assessments of the coach's year.
The biggest problem I had with Bob Hartley this past season was simply his reluctance to mix things up when the situation called for it. When Mark Giordano went down, Hartley had very few options to take his place; he immediately chose Deryk Engelland. Engelland, however, didn't work out, but we never saw Hartley start a game with anyone else by TJ Brodie's side. Occasionally there would be a third period in which Raphael Diaz or David Schlemko took his place, but by the time the next game started, Engelland was back in the top four, firmly unchallenged, despite better results shown by others. Hartley only seemed to adapt when the situation was out of his control: he was almost always reactive, and never proactive.
That's not to say he never did any good, though. Hartley had to wait until Mikael Backlund was back to put Sean Monahan in between Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler, but once he did, they took off. He had a firm grasp of the roles of his top players (albeit he also had an overestimation of the abilities of some he considered as such. Again: top six forward Lance Bouma needs to not happen, and punting Sam Bennett to the fourth line so it could was not a good move). And ultimately, he did something right. Luck played its fair part, but fact is, this overachieving team made it as far as it did under him, and they may not have replicated that success under anyone else. Does that make him the best coach in the league? No. Does that make him a capable coach? Yes. Let's see what happens next season.
Mike FAIL (B-):
I'm notoriously hard on Bob for some justified reasons. I am willing to acknowledge several things he has done correctly in his tenure and this season. Things like knowing Mikael Backlund is not a fourth line centre, playing Monahan with Hudler and Gaudreau, and acknowledging that focusing on the youth is a huge step towards a brighter tomorrow. Things I cannot accept are poor line compositions and usage of certain players like:
- Matt Stajan on the fourth line all year and then wanting "more" out of him. CAMAN BOB YOU KNOW BETTER!
- Brandon Bollig playing 62 too many games this regular season.
- Joe Colborne used on the powerplay, used in the top six, and relied on too much.
- Not adjusting defensemen pairings when Gio went down with injury to create parity among the pairings.
That's really it. Those have been my concerns for the bulk of the year and I've said my piece on each of them repeatedly. I do find some value in a few things about his abilities to coach, like being an absolute shit-heel and delaying rosters until 20 seconds before puck drop. I think he is a decent quote, says the right things to get people to buy into his mantras, and genuinely likes the future direction of the team. Having the media eating out of your hands at times this year has worked well for Bob.
Outside of that, he's just a coach. All coaches are replaceable and there is very little variance at times between guys like Hartley, great coaches, and poor coaches. They're dime a dozen, all have a shelf life, and all need to adapt. The latter is something Hartley has difficulty with. Maybe next season he can master that.
The Flames exceeded everybody's expectations this year as they improved in points by the largest margin in the N.H.L. Much of that is attributed to Hartley's handling of the team, but the question has to be asked whether it should be. He certainly had his ups and he certainly had his downs.
Starting with the good: Hartley recognized the pairing of Giordano and Brodie as the team's top defensive pair and treated them as such. That went a long way in making sure that the Flames were successful. He teamed up Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, who wound up being the team's top scoring threat. Critics will say that these are no brainers, but there are a lot of coaches out there who don't have brains.
In addition to this, he inserted Mikael Backlund back into the lineup the moment he was ready and gave him difficult minutes. He demoted Mason Raymond when he was performing poorly. There were moments where he had quality decision making and he coached the most disciplined team in the N.H.L. That penalty differential was by and large the main reason they made the playoffs.
However, Hartley also has a bad side. Ladislav Smid was rather horrible for the Flames, but continued to play until he got injured. Once he was out of the picture, Raphael Diaz came in and performed phenomenally. Brandon Bollig was rather awful, but never had to face the ramifications of being awful. He gave Markus Granlund an extended look over Sven Baertschi when it was apparent that Granlund was in over his head - this largely lead into Baertschi's departure from the team for just a second round pick. Deryk Engelland may be the worst defenseman in the N.H.L. and never faced the threat of a scratch.
Those lineup decisions were less than great, but there's more to be said about the team as a whole. The Flames put up the third worst possession numbers in the N.H.L. and there's something to be said for that. There's at least decent evidence that a team's possession is in part driven by their coaches and if the Flames continue to perform like they did this year in that aspect then that poses as a long term problem.
Ultimately Hartley made the playoffs with a roster that featured quite a few players that shouldn't be in the show. While Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman are often referred to as lucky, the pairing worked for them so he cannot be blamed for using them so consistently. Some of his decisions are good, some are bad; he did some things successfully, he was horrid in other aspects; but the Flames made the playoffs. There's no long term record of success or failure with the Flames so he gets a very incomplete B-, which means nothing if the team doesn't perform well next season.
I was stoked for Bob Hartley to join the Flames. He's a very likeable guy, and he's a treasure trove for entertaining quotes. As a coach, he's... perplexing. I still believe that the players like him, and he has an ability to inspire them, to rally them when they need it. But he makes some odd decisions all the while. Remember Extra-Attacker-Brandon-Bollig? Probably shouldn't have happened. He also took way too long to put Monahan between Johnny and Hudler, but there were other circumstances that might have been affecting the decisions (namely, all of the injuries and an unwillingness to force a rookie onto the top line against the best of the league - which was able to change once some centres started returning). Overall, he's still a great coach who clearly promotes the #neverquit attitude in the locker room, and the team did just that this season. He may not be the best coach out there, but when a team defies odds, there's magic there. Whether it be PDO or intangibles, Hartley was there to bottle it.
It's hard to give Hartley any extra credit for doing a good job of coaching. He certainly did some good - motivating the troops, introducing a system effectively, making good lines and pairings - but there were still a lot of bad and confusing decisions that aren't mentioned when people (typically media guys) talk about Hartley.
His system involves turtling in the zone and hoping for the puck so they can try a fast breakout: hockey's version of parking the bus. It's frustrating to watch, and considering the amount of shots the Flames allow compared to shots they take, it certainly isn't helping them. His player selection was often confusing, such as every time he benched Bollig in the third period and then went back to playing him in the next game. Placing Engelland with Brodie every game after Giordano's injury was especially frustrating considering the amount of times he switched Engelland with Diaz or Schlemko in the third.
No coach is perfect, but if someone's up for the Jack Adams, their flaws should dwindle compared to their successes. Hartley's issues are very large, and he's very lucky that they didn't result in a larger disaster than they already were.
Bob Hartley is certainly, at first glance, deserving of his nomination for the Jack Adams trophy. He took a young team, fully expected to battle it out for Connor McDavid, and exceeded all expectations by taking them to round two of the playoffs. This is despite injuries to several key players over the course of the year. That's why it is deserved, and well done to him.
However, that isn't to say he hasn't been without fault. The continued usage of Deryk Engelland, and to a point Corey Potter, with better, younger, more viable alternatives must be recognised, along with Devin Setoguchi making the final cut instead of a certain Josh Jooris. He needs to learn to trust the players he has at his disposal more - Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman should not be playing nearly 30 minutes a game.
That's not to say he's done a bad job, not by any stretch. But, he has things that he has to improve on if he has serious intentions of leading the Flames to Stanley Cup glory. It'll come, I have faith in him.
All in all, a good year for Uncle Bob, which could be even better if he figures some personnel out.
Bob Hartley took the 2014-15 Calgary Flames to a place few thought possible for the young, rebuilding squad: the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His systems with active defensemen paid off offensively and led to career years in points for Wideman, Russell, Brodie, and even Giordano, despite the latter missing the last 21 games of the season. The head coach instilled discipline in his team, providing the Flames with the best penalty differential in the league. Quite simply, Calgary would not have made the playoffs without this special teams advantage.
Hartley's compassion towards his players and his willingness to let them learn and grow from their mistakes provided them with the confidence and resolve to win games they had no business winning. After losing their Norris-calibre captain for the last quarter of the season, not only did the Flames not crash and burn as most anticipated, they fought off the LA Kings to make the playoffs. This is a testament to Bob Hartley and the team he built: one in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
All in all, there's a lot to like about Bob Hartley, but there are equal amounts to question. Throughout our evaluations - cofstats' particularly glowing review aside - we bring up one of those biggest concerns: the team's top four personnel once injuries forced a change. At the same time, we all praise him for his identifying of the top forward line. Overall, our grades average him out to a well-earned B.
Fact is, though, this team made the playoffs under Hartley, and it's impossible to know if they could have done it under anyone else. He did a lot right outside of game situations, and maybe, just maybe, that's what gave them what they needed to prove themselves around the entire NHL. One thing's for certain: we're all hoping he can do it again.