CALGARY – The Calgary Flames did little to end the speculation surrounding general manager Darryl Sutter’s future with the hockey club on Monday.
Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King, along with Sutter, jointly addressed the media in the aftermath of the club’s failure to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
King was supportive of Sutter, the team’s GM since 2002, and the two men spoke of a top-to-bottom franchise review that would take place over the next fews weeks.
“We’re throwing no bodies out on the tarmac here,” King said. “We’re going to take a very close scrutiny of everyone, from the president downward.
“If it is necessary to sacrifice someone to sell tickets, then they’ll have to get somebody else to sell tickets.”
King said 97 per cent of Flames’ season-ticket holders have made deposits to renew for the 2010-11 season. He acknowledged, however, the team was in overdraft on their fans’ goodwill after missing the playoffs following four straight seasons of first-round eliminations.
“To have 20,000 people come in here and spontaneously break out in a cheer or any other emotion at one time, that’s what the business is about,” King said. “That’s what is supposed to happen.
“I think it got a little quieter this year.”
The Flames finished 16th in the league and tied for ninth with St. Louis in the Western Conference at 90 points, which would have been good enough seventh and a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Calgary’s goals-for, the lowest in the league at 204, and its 20-17-4 home record tells the tale of the Flames’ 2009-10 season.
“When you’re in the top-10 on the road and in the bottom-10 at home, it tells you there’s an area that you really have to look at and find out why and solve that,” Sutter said. “That’s what we intend to do in the next two or three weeks.”
The Flames had the sixth-best defence in the NHL at 210 goals-against and would have ranked in the top-four, if not for the seven goals allowed Saturday in their regular-season finale against Vancouver.
Sutter believes Calgary’s scoring woes can be rectified by getting forwards capable of scoring 20 goals to do just that. The Flames had the most players with 20-goal seasons in their NHL careers after the deals that brought Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan from Toronto, and Alex Kotalik from New York, he added.
Yet only three – captain Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque and Hagman – finished over the 20-goal mark. Iginla’s 32 goals and 37 assists led the team, but are his lowest in the last five seasons. The captain’s future with the team has also been the subject of intense speculation.
Stajan, Hagman and Kotalik produced 11 goals between them after coming to Calgary in deals on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
“We have to find out why and address that,” Sutter said. “There are some guys we have to get them back to their career numbers. Other than (Craig Conroy), I think everyone is still very capable of that.”
Calgary sent defenceman Dion Phaneuf, winger Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie to Toronto for Stajan, Hagman and defenceman Ian White. Centre Olli Jokinen, acquired at the trade deadline in 2009, and winger Brandon Prust were shipped to New York for Kotalik and winger Chris Higgins.
Sutter hinted at personality conflicts in the dressing room, although Iginla insisted last week that wasn’t the case.
“I just think sometimes you have different personalities that don’t always work,” Sutter said. “It’s something as a general manager you should have your finger on all the time. Because of the relationship you have with some of your players who have been here for a long time, it’s probably an oversight on my part.”
Sutter disagreed with the notion that Calgary’s improved defence under his brother and head coach Brent Sutter came at the expense of offence.
“On paper, we’re a really good hockey club,” he said. “If we can get three or four guys back to their numbers that they have to hit, and you’re right back to where you are.”
The team’s payroll wasn’t an impediment to performance as King acknowledged the Flames were a “cap team” this season – spending close to the salary cap of US$56.8 million. Calgary has 18 players under contract for next season, which doesn’t leave a lot of cap room to manoeuvre.
Calgary doesn’t have a first-or second-round pick at June’s NHL draft, as both were given up in Sutter trades. The GM did say he’ll work at improving Calgary’s draft position.
The first pick was dealt to Phoenix to get Jokinen, who was then dealt to New York. Giving up the second-round selection to get Bourque from Chicago in 2008 has proven more fruitful, as he’s been a 20-goal producer in two seasons with the team.
The Flames hired Sutter in 2002 to both coach and manage the club. The team missed the playoffs for a seventh straight season in his first year at the helm, but went all the way to the Stanley Cup final in 2004 before losing in seven games to Tampa Bay.
The first season after the NHL lockout, Calgary lost in the first round with Sutter behind the bench. He stepped aside to concentrate his duties as general manager and three coaches – Jim Playfair, Mike Keenan and brother Brent – followed in the next four seasons.
“I think I’m very accountable,” Darryl Sutter said. “When I stepped down from coaching … It was the first time I’d said I wasn’t a good enough coach.
Although playoff games are a huge part of an NHL club’s profit margin, the Flames will make money this season, King added.
“From a business perspective, we’re easily in the top-six,” he said. “We went a significant revenue-sharing cheque last year and we will against this year.”
The Sutter name carries a lot of weight in hockey circles in Alberta. Sutter doesn’t operate under contract with set term, King said, but under a mutual agreement to continue working with the club.
While many website polls, radio call-in shows and letters to the editor have called for Sutter’s sacking in recent days, King doesn’t believe Flames fans have completely turned on their general manager.
“What he has done has helped created a credible and competitive hockey environment,” King said. “We’re grateful for that. I know lots of people in our city are as well.”