A week after being linked to the Habs' opening, the veteran coach was hired by the Flames on Thursday.
He replaces Brent Sutter, who was fired after the Flames failed to reach the playoffs in each of his three seasons in Calgary. They came close this past season, finishing ninth in the West at 37-29-16, five points short of eighth-place Los Angeles. Those same Kings are now up 1-0 on New Jersey in the Stanley Cup playoffs, showing just how slim the margin between ultimate success and utter failure can be in today's NHL.
Hartley is a safe choice for the Flames. He has a proven track record at every level of hockey right up to the NHL, where he guided Colorado to the Cup in 2001. Prior to that, he reached the Memorial Cup with Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1993 and won the Calder Cup in the AHL in 1997. In his last NHL stint, he took Atlanta to the only playoff appearance in Thrashers history after winning the Southeast Division in 2006-07. This past year Hartley showed he hasn't lost his championship touch, winning the Swiss title with ZSC Lions.
Repeating that success in Calgary won't be easy. In addition to failing to qualify for the postseason the last three years, the Flames haven't won a playoff series since reaching the Cup Final in 2004.
Hartley inherits a veteran lineup lean on depth and lacking young talent with significant upside. He'll have to work with an aging corps of veterans led by Jarome Iginla, 34, Miikka Kiprusoff, 35, Alex Tanguay, 32, and Mike Cammalleri, 30, along with possibly Olli Jokinen, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent after finishing second on the club with 23-38-61 totals last year.
Iginla, as usual, was first on that list at 32-35-67. It was his 11th straight season with at least 30 goals, but how many more years like that does Iginla have left in him? The window is closing on this veteran core, and it's already been shown that even that group is not enough to make Calgary a legitimate contender with the weak supporting cast around it.
That includes high-priced defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who has provided little return for his cap-killing monster contract that has two years remaining at an annual $6.68 million hit. Bouwmeester has never reached the playoffs in nine seasons in the NHL, and has managed point totals of just 29, 24 and 29 in his three years in Calgary after putting up 46, 42, 37 and 42 in his final four seasons in Florida.
Hartley has won before with veteran groups, winning that Cup in Colorado with an experienced group led by Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy. That Avalanche squad was a true powerhouse though, far stronger and deeper than anything Calgary has seen since the glory days of the Battle of Alberta when the Flames went toe to toe with Edmonton's dynasty and came away with two appearances in the Cup Final and a championship in 1989.
Cowtown hasn't been titletown since. Hartley won't be able to change that by himself, but his arrival is a step in the right direction. His no-nonsense approach might be just what the Flames need to snap out of their recent lethargy. He has the ability to return Calgary to respectability and will get the most out of the players at his disposal, but how far he can take the Flames will be determined by how much help he gets on personnel side in upgrading the club's talent and depth.
In that regard, Hartley may have been better off going to Montreal, where despite this past year's last-place finish in the East a younger core is in place with Carey Price, 24, P.K. Subban, 23, Max Pacioretty, 23, and Tomas Plekanec, 29, plus the chance to add an impact player with the third overall pick in this year's draft.
But Hartley has never shied from a challenge. He'll certainly get that in Calgary. And the Canadiens will now face a tougher challenge of their own in landing a bilingual coach with a resume as impressive.
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