CALGARY – Brent Sutter wanted his first messages to the Calgary Flames to be crystal clear.
The new head coach spoke to the club’s veterans before they stepped on the ice Sunday about his expectations.
When the Flames hit the ice for the first time with him, Sutter occasionally stopped practice to point out positional flaws. If it seemed back-to-basics at times, Sutter made no apologies.
“I don’t think there should be a grey area,” Sutter said. “It’s a new coaching staff so things are going to be different and it’s important that the coaches relay things properly to the players so they can catch onto it as quickly as possible.
“We want to be a team that’s a structured team and that has to include everybody. The veterans, the experienced players, have to be leaders in that category.”
The 47-year-old from Viking, Alta., was hired by brother and Flames general manager Darryl Sutter to take the team further than the first round of playoffs, which is as far as Calgary has gone the last four seasons.
From his Western Hockey League Red Deer Rebels, to the Canadian junior teams of 2005 and 2006, to the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, Brent Sutter’s teams have been positionally sound and defensively responsible .
Defence is an area in which the Flames slid to No. 23 in the league last season.
“Looking back on last year, in our own zone we probably weren’t as tight as we could have been,” acknowledged captain Jarome Iginla. “We know we can improve in that area.”
Sutter discussed his philosophy with defenceman Robyn Regehr during the summer. Emphasis on an aggressive defence was music to his ears.
” I think you’re going to see a good, hardworking, solid, consistent team,” Regehr said. “The last couple years it’s been pretty inconsistent and it’s something that came back to hurt us, especially in the playoffs.”
Sutter ran three business-like sessions Sunday as the 57 players invited were split into three groups. Theoren Fleury, 41, is attempting a comeback to the NHL after a six-year absence and skated in the second group.
He did not look out of place in drills, although he did look winded at times.
“I tried to make sure I didn’t trip when I came out on the ice for the first time,” Fleury said. “It’s my 19th training camp, but obviously it’s under different circumstances.
“After having gone through a fitness test I haven’t done in seven years, I think things went pretty well considering.”
The Flames host Edmonton on Tuesday in a pre-season game. Calgary opens the regular season Oct. 1 at home against the Vancouver Canucks.
Calgary defenceman Dion Phaneuf played for Sutter in Red Deer, so his first practice under Sutter had a familiar feel.
“I haven’t played for Brent for a long time, but it was much of the same,” Phaneuf said. “He stopped practice a couple of times to reinforce details and that’s the type of coach he is. He’s very structured, very detailed and we saw that this morning.”
With Jay Bouwmeester joining Regehr, Phaneuf and Cory Sarich among Calgary’s top four defencemen and Sutter preaching discipline on defence, the Flames should be better at protecting their own net whether Miikka Kiprusoff is in it or not
Sutter won’t put a firm number on Kiprusoff’s starts this season, but says his star netminder will not play 76 games again.
“At this point in time, I certainly wouldn’t expect him to play as many games as he has,” Sutter said. “You need your goaltenders to play well for you and it’s got to be both guys.”
Curtis McElhinney appeared in 14 games as Kiprusoff’s backup last season.
Bouwmeester’s signing was Calgary’s blockbuster move of the off-season. Darryl Sutter acquired his rights from the Florida Panthers and signed Bouwmeester the day before free agency opened to a US$33-million five-year deal.
The 25-year-old from Edmonton is one of the top puck-movers in the league and can generate offence from the back end.
“If he would have been in a hockey market the last three or four years, he would have been a Norris Trophy candidate,” declared Olli Jokinen, a former Panther teammate.
“Too bad he was buried in Florida.”
With Adam Pardy and Mark Giordano also regulars in the lineup, the job market is touch on Calgary’s blue-line.
There’s more opportunity up front with leading goalscorer Mike Cammalleri going to the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent.
Swedish forward Mikael Backlund, Calgary’s No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, appears ready to make the roster. The 20-year-old played on a line with Jokinen and Iginla on Sunday.
Jokinen, acquired at the NHL trade deadline last season, is expected to have more time to develop chemistry with Iginla on Calgary’s top line.
Fredrik Sjostrom, another Swede who came from the New York Rangers, and wingers Nigel Dawes and Brandon Prust, both acquired from Phoenix, come to camp looking to earn regular jobs in the lineup.
Flames forward Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross and David Moss will be asked to take another step further in their development and shoulder more of the offensive load.