- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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In Atlanta two weeks ago, Thrashers coach Bob Hartley several times made admiring references to the Colorado Avalanche. The team he coached to the Stanley Cup three years ago, he said, now has "probably the best collection of talent ever put up." And for several days, as the Thrashers' only meeting of the season with the Avalanche approached and then passed, Hartley said similar things.
It was as if he was advising Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to start planning the parade and alerting the proprietors of the Hockey Hall of Fame
to prepare for a wave of Colorado inductees.
Hartley is a good guy, and he has no feud going with his Avalanche successor, Tony Granato. But if you read between the lines, Hartley had held the Stanley Cup overhead and made the Western Conference finals in his only other three full seasons at Colorado, yet got only modest credit for the accomplishments. And then he was fired with his team two games over .500 in his fifth season.
Hah! The skate is on the other foot, isn't it? Hartley has done a terrific job of coaching a troubled team to overachievement, deservedly is getting raves for his work and is one of the early favorites for the Jack Adams Trophy as the league's coach of the year.
Now it's Granato whose impact is, if not completely overlooked, at least underappreciated. The implication: Couldn't a trained monkey coach Colorado to at least the league's upper echelon?
Hartley heard that for four-plus seasons.
Now, even if it is unintentional, he gets to throw it out at his successor.
Here are the facts: In 13 months as the Avalanche coach, Granato's record is 62-22-13-7 as Colorado heads into its first meeting of the season against the Red Wings tonight in Denver.
At the 100-game mark, his record was better than those of Marc Crawford and Hartley at the same stages of their stints with the franchise.
Does that make Granato a great coach? Of course not. Not yet. The Avalanche flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, against Minnesota, and sound intuitive and calculated strategic touches in the postseason are part of any coach's validation. "I'll never forget what it felt like to pack the bags up and close the office door," Granato said. "But you learn from it."
Neither is this a case of a recent former player, whose entire coaching resume consisted of 31 games as Hartley's assistant coach before he was promoted, opening the gate and saying: Go to it, guys.
At the end of his Colorado tenure, Hartley's attention to detail and sometimes cutting tongue offended many of his veterans. His firing was premature and an overreaction. But Granato is different, and his approach is somewhere in that gray area between harping on details to the point where he gets tuned out, and, yes, coaching a talented team with a touch that comes off more as one of the boys than an authority figure. He instituted shorter, quicker practices, and he encouraged more offensive aggressiveness, especially from his defensemen. He also nudged the sensitive and sometimes moody Alex Tanguay out of his funk, making the young winger his project, and Tanguay has been one of the league's scoring leaders all season, even when Peter Forsberg was hurt and out of the lineup.
Bring up the issue of "credit," of course, and Granato skates away -- at least figuratively speaking.
"I haven't really looked at it any way except from the aspect of what I can do, and with the staff, to get this team ready from day to day,'' Granato said. "How I'm looked at or how our team is looked at doesn't matter."
Has he grown as a coach? "You have to," he said. "You have to use all your experiences and try to get a better understanding of your team and other teams."
Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake, who has a bona fide chance at his second Norris Trophy, was a Granato teammate at Los Angeles. He defends Hartley, too, but praises Granato. "Tony came in and had a game plan from day one and stuck to it," Blake said. "Tony's biggest thing is that the players accepted him as a coach from the start. We respected what he has done, and we pay attention to what he wants.
"Tony changed our philosophy a little bit on forechecking and things, and our power play and penalty killing is up on top, where it should be. It's probably harder to coach a team like this sometimes, because you've got 25 guys who could play on any team in the league and play a lot of minutes."
Granato hasn't been shy about rocking the boat. He has made a point of using Teemu Selanne only intermittently on the anticipated line with Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya. Part of that is that Selanne has trouble exploding past opponents, which he did so often in the past. But part of it is a clear message: Play both ends of the ice and ye shall be rewarded.
Granato does have a far deeper team in some ways than Hartley did. When everyone is healthy -- an iffy proposition -- he can use Steve Konowalchuk and
Andrei Nikolishin on the third line. Especially after Forsberg's spleen injury, the Avalanche had Ville Nieminen on the second line during the final stages of the 2001 Cup run, and their third line couldn't score against, well, anyone.
But Granato has been living up to the faith shown in him by Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix, who in three coaching hires has selected Crawford, Hartley and Granato. Arguably, that highlights Lacroix's belief that he is the architect and the coach is a secondary component, but he refrained from recycling and took risks in his hires. Now, Granato is showing signs of developing into one of the better coaches in the league. "He's in charge, definitely in charge, but he's also approachable," said Sakic.
The NBA trend of selecting recently retired players seems to have run its course. The NHL didn't rush to imitate that, but the hirings of Granato, Ed Olczyk and Mike Sullivan might have been the leading edge of a hockey trend. (Sullivan at least had coached one season in the AHL.)
"I knew what to expect from what I had heard before I got here," said Konowalchuk, the veteran forward acquired in October. "He was good for the players, and he wants the players to be like he was when he was a player -- intense and gritty. That's the way he tries to approach the game when he coaches.
"You know, we have a group of very talented players here, and it sometimes can be harder. There are harder combinations to put together, there are more egos to worry about, and you have to keep everybody involved in the game. That's hard to do. In Washington we had a lot of very talented guys, and it didn't work. I think you see that with the Rangers sometimes. Sometimes if you're coaching a team of young players, they're going to go through a wall for you, no matter what, because of fear and wanting to survive in the NHL."
Granato played for some good coaches, including Darryl Sutter at San Jose and Barry Melrose at Los Angeles.
"I was given this opportunity because of who I was, not because of what they wanted me to be," Granato said. "I'm not going to have a Darryl Sutter tag on my back or a Barry Melrose, or anybody else. Did I learn from all those guys I played for? Yes."
Expectations being what they are, another playoff failure could cost Granato his job. That's the reality. "People ask me, 'Do you feel the pressure?'" he said. "No. It's the same thing. That's what makes this organization what it is. It's no different than it always has been."
Just ask Hartley.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."
19hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com