Why Hartnell is the NHL’s most improved

His surname rhymes with Fart-Smell and his hair is orange, but on Kick-a-Ginger Day, expected to get kicked back.

By turns hilarious and nasty, smoothing out Ric Flair’s win-at-all-costs with a heaping dose of Hulk Hogan’s crowd-pleasing, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Scott Hartnell is a paradox wrapped in a Twitter feed in need of a haircut. He’s the prototypical “hate to play against him, love to have him on my side” guy. And he’s the National Hockey League’s unofficial Most Improved Player of the Year.

But in Hartnell’s case, this trophy-less award isn’t so much to honour a year-to-year turnaround but a career-long improvement trajectory that has spiked sharply when most veterans are flattening out.

Drafted sixth overall in 2000 by the Nashville Predators from the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, where he flourished as captain and MVP, the gritty 6-foot-2 kid became the southern franchise’s youngest starter. But after a two-goal rookie season in 2000-01 with the Preds, it would be impossible for a teenage Hartnell — the youngest kid in the entire NHL — to suffer a sophomore slump. Instead, he scored 14 goals and 27 assists for 41 points and made a big enough impact to earn an invite to the league’s 2002 YoungStars Game.

Hartnell would see his point production dip in each of the next two seasons. If not spiritually and culturally, statistically the lockout of 2004-05 did the man some good. A point-a-game player with Norway’s Valerenga, Hartnell helped lead his temporary team to the GET-ligaen championship before returning to the Preds renewed in 2005-06. With the NHL back underway, Hartnell became a 25-goal scorer, tallied his first hat trick, and racked up his most productive season prior to his Flyers era. The following year the winger performed well but broke his foot.

On June 18, 2007, Hartnell and top defenceman Kimmo Timonen were shipped to the Flyers in exchange for a first-round pick previously acquired from Nashville for Peter Forsberg. He would leave Nashville as the franchise leader in total penalty minutes (544), the kind of guy who would fit Philly like a dropped glove.

The rough-and-tumble Hartnell immediately committed to the franchise best known for its Broad Street Bullies history, inking a six-year deal worth $25.2 million.

The veteran Timonen knows his teammate since the Nashville days.

“He’s still doing the same things that he always does. He goes to the net, he plays hard. As a defenceman, he’s a really hard player to play against. He’s always there yapping or doing whatever he’s doing. He goes to the net and gets rebounds — that’s his game,” said Timonen, who enjoys No. 19’s off-ice presence as well. “He’s funny. He’s always happy, and he’s easy to talk to. He’s one of those guys who’s great to have around.”

While slow to adjust to the orange and black, getting slapped with a two-game suspension for an illegal hit and waiting until his 16th contest as a Flyer to score a goal for his new club (and even that was a gimme empty-netter), Hartnell has matured into a big, hairy bargain of a power forward.

But everything, it seems, about the player is two-sided, double-edged. A joke interpreted as an insult, or an insult interpreted as a joke. Dirty penalties, filthier goals — deflections, rebounds, and all manner crease-banging rewards. While playing on Jeff Carter’s wing in 2008-09, Hartnell took more minor penalties, 54, than anyone else in the NHL. Yet he also scored 30 goals and 30 assists, career bests in both categories. Until this year.

If 2008-09 was Hartnell’s coming-out party, the 2010 playoffs were his big night on the town (17 points in helping the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup final appearance in 13 years), and 2011-12 is him in full-blown adult key party mode.

Though he played in the All-Star Weekend’s YoungStars Game a decade earlier, the idea of “Scott Hartnell: Proper all-star” seemed distant if not scoff-worthy. (“I’ve had a smile on my face for three or four days now, ever since I got the nod to come here,” he told us at All-Star Weekend in Ottawa.) He was a role player, and a damn good one, but a role player nonetheless. He may have had a marquee mane but not a marquee name.

Unlike the NBA, the NHL doesn’t honour an official Most Improved Player, so the ballot Hartnell finds his name on is imaginary. (Although he did win the Flyers’ Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy, which acknowledges the team’s most improved player.)

For all his bluster on the ice this season — mimicking WWF icon Hogan’s crowd-inciting gestures , making an unlikely run to be in contention for Electronic Arts’ NHL 13 coverboy, letting his personality shine on HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, and giving fans DVD bonus-reel footage of his off-ice life through the NHLPA/Playbook video clips — Hartnell remains humble about waiting until his 11th campaign to post the best stat line of his career: 37 goals, 30 assists, 67 points, plus-19, and “only” 136 penalty minutes, his most box-free year since the trade.
Toss in the fact that the Flyers play in the NHL’s toughest division — three of the year’s final four Eastern Conference clubs hailed from the Atlantic, and the Flyers eliminated a fourth, the Penguins, in the nastiest of opening rounds — and his success is all the more impressive.

Hartnell, 30, says he’s devoted his year to becoming more consistent and credits his superstar teammates with his improved play.

“Playing with (Claude) Giroux and (Jaromir) Jagr, I’ve been working on my game every day to get better at practices. And at practice Jagr’s done a great job of recognizing what I should do and not do in a game. Holding onto the puck — he always tells me I’m a strong body, I’m good at holding onto the puck. Just like him — he sticks his butt out there, and you can’t take the puck away from him unless you take a penalty. It’s amazing what he can do. I’ve watched him for a few months now and tried to take some of his game, some of his strength, feed off of him. It’s been great to have his leadership in the dressing room.”

Perhaps because his NHL success has been more over-decade than overnight, Hartnell’s demeanour and his comments smack of “hey, I’m just one of the guys.” You’re more likely to catch him hacking an opponent in the slot than in the papers.

“I don’t think I’ve met a real bad guy in the sport of hockey, when I was younger, now, or in the future,” Hartnell said. “To hate a guy like Dion Phaneuf, for example, in Toronto, you hate playing against him. He hits you hard, he finishes every check, he’s a great player. At an event like (the All-Star Game), he’s having fun and we’re chirping each other, chirping other guys. It’s amazing that you can have that fun here, and then when we get back to Toronto, we’ll hate their guts.”

Funny how two days after Hartnell said those words, mic’d up at the All-Star Game he was caught jokingly telling Phaneuf to “suck it” after he set up a Henrik Sedin goal. On the Flyers’ next visit to Toronto, Hartnell scored a goal and — at a moment when a typical player would be celebrating — immediately picked a fight with Phaneuf.

Hartnell’s on-ice devotion is rivaled only by his efforts to raise his profile in civvies. He’s becoming the kind of recognizable, affable personality that the NHL so desperately needs more of.

Early this calendar year, Hartnell created the #HartnellDown Foundation as a way to support hockey-related charities in North America. What began as a fan’s Twitter joke that kept tally of the number of times the notoriously tumble-prone Hartnell hit the ice turned into a Hartnell-embraced opportunity to hawk merchandise and raise funds for his favourite community charities.

Twitter has not only given Hartnell a platform for philanthropy but has let us be privy to his quick interview wit, as he’ll openly play the dozens with his teammates 140 characters at a time.

On Giroux’s midseason haircut: “He got it cut a couple weeks ago, and I’m sure he got a free bowl of soup with the cut. No offense to the hair dresser in Philadelphia. I think deep down he’s jealous of my hair, the curly locks.”

Giroux, arguably overlooked for some hardware consideration himself this year, has nothing but praise for his fellow redhead.

“He’s been working so hard this year. He’s always in the gym,” Giroux said of Hartnell, a player he clicked with immediately because of Hartsy’s knack for salvaging loose pucks. “He’s one of our leaders, and he’s starting to believe it, too. When he plays with a lot of confidence, he’s dangerous.”

After a season like his, #HartnellDown has every right to have his #ConfidenceUp.

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