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Steinberg's Slant: Hartley right for so many reasons

by Pat Steinberg / Calgary Flames

Fans of the Calgary Flames nearly universally embraced Bob Hartley’s contract extension earlier this month. We heard all about how well conditioned and hard working the Flames are. The team’s new identity was underlined as something very positive accomplished by Hartley in his time in Calgary. All of those things are accurate and very important, no doubt.

But Hartley also deserves some credit for what he’s done in a more traditional sense -- from strictly a hockey perspective, Calgary’s coach has been shown us plenty of reasons why he’s worthy of an extended contract. Knowing these things haven’t gotten as much play, I thought I’d point out a few examples, because I think they’re very worthy of discussion.

FLOURISHING PLAYERS

One easy example to highlight Hartley’s impact on the hockey product itself comes in what he’s squeezed out of certain players. Now in his third season behind the Flames bench, there are two players enjoying more success under Hartley than they have at any other time in their NHL careers.

The first is Kris Russell, who burst onto the scene last year in his first season with Calgary. Russell posted a career-high 29 points with the Flames last season, and is on pace to finish with an even higher total this season. He already has 14 points, all assists, in 33 games this season.

But is it a surprise to see Russell’s point totals take a jump upon his arrival to Calgary? Not really... because for the first time, a coach used him in a consistent top-four role. Russell averaged 23:08 of ice time last season and is up to 23:12 through 33 games this year. His prior season high was 18:35 during the 2009-2010 season as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Hartley put Russell in a good spot, pairing him largely with Dennis Wideman in a more offensively tailored role. Russell is a good skater, is not afraid to jump into the rush, and had been waiting for an opportunity like the one he has now with the Flames. Hartley put him in that spot, and it’s paid huge dividends.

Another player who has blossomed under Hartley is Mikael Backlund. He also posted career highs with 18 goals and 39 points in 2013-2014, and once again, much of that is due to a coach using him in an enhanced role. Averaging 18:32 of ice time last year, Backlund got three more minutes per game as compared to his previous career high of 15:23 (2011-2012). On top of that, Hartley really played to Backlund’s strength. Towards the end of the shortened 2013 season, Backlund’s work as a shutdown centre was starting to show, and it was truly exploited by Hartley the following campaign. Last year, Backlund was routinely matched up against the top opposing players, and did the job extremely well.

With a 47.1% offensive zone start last season, Backlund was deployed in the defensive end more often than not. Despite that, and the tough opposition he was facing on a regular basis, he still finished with the best possession rate among forwards on the team. Backlund finished with a 4.69 Corsi rating and turned into one of the team’s most important players. That wasn’t going to happen if Hartley hadn’t put him in the positions to truly succeed.

SEAMLESS TRANSITIONS

Hartley also deserves some credit for how numerous inexperienced NHLers have stepped in without a typical and huge learning curve. Josh Jooris, Michael Ferland, and Markus Granlund (among others) have all joined up with the Flames this season and were able to do so seemingly quite easily.

Much of that goes back to something Hartley has been a huge proponent of since joining the organization in May of 2012: continuity at the NHL and AHL levels. With Ryan Huska installed as the head coach in Adirondack, that plan was put into full swing this season.

Huska -- who also deserves a lot of credit -- and Hartley have been teaching and running the same systems which can make the jump to the NHL a whole lot less stressful. Yes, the level of play is much higher, but that’s the only thing a player needs to adjust to, as opposed to different systems and/or terminology.

Combine that with Hartley’s willingness to put young players into tough situations, you can see why these guys have jumped in and done the job they have.

The Flames probably would have been okay with signing Hartley to an extension based on the traits we outlined in the first paragraph but when you throw in less touchy-feely stuff, like X’s and O’s, it becomes even more clear that he deserved more time behind the bench.

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