When the Calgary Flames retooled for this season, the addition of defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was no doubt a marquee move, but so was the hiring of Brent Sutter to coach the team.
Sutter, after all, is Alberta royalty thanks to his family’s success in developing NHL talent based often on grit and hard work. He won Stanley Cups as a player with the dynasty New York Islanders and coached major junior back home in Alberta.
As bench boss and owner of the Western League’s Red Deer Rebels, Sutter won the 2001 Memorial Cup within just a year of taking over and when he finally left to helm the NHL’s New Jersey Devils in 2007, he had graduated a trail of elite pro talent: Cam Ward, Dion Phaneuf and Martin Erat all played for the Rebels during those halcyon days. Sutter also coached Canada to world junior gold in 2005 and 2006.
Then the success stopped.
Taking over a New Jersey team largely comprised of the same players that are viciously kicking down nearly every opponent this year, Sutter failed to guide the team out of the first round of the playoffs in his two years under the employment of GM Lou Lamoriello.
This season, back in the heartland, the Calgary Flames are going backwards – and fast – under the irascible coach. In fact, it’s no guarantee the Flames will even make the playoffs, let alone face the indignity of once again bowing out in seven games or less.
With top names such as Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Miikka Kiprusoff, Robyn Regehr, Phaneuf and Bouwmeester at his disposal (not to mention some nice secondary pieces in Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross), it seems utterly bizarre Sutter would be unable to coax wins out of the talent he has in that dressing room.
But here we are.
Sutter has been vocally upset with his team’s performance in the local press, but the Flames still aren’t bringing it every night. Is it possible Sutter’s abrasive nose-always-on-the-grindstone coaching style only works in junior?
This isn’t even meant as a slam – plenty of high-profile coaches are better with youngsters than they are with seasoned vets. Rick Pitino did huge things at Providence College and the University of Kentucky basketball programs, but crashed out of the NBA when he was given the keys to the Boston Celtics. Likewise, Nick Saban was a college football guru with Louisiana State, but he couldn’t make hay with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Saban, of course, just won a national championship with the University of Alabama.
Coaching major junior is just different from the NHL. You have players for a maximum of five seasons and help develop them from raw, lanky teens into beastly young men. In the meantime, you teach them how to be professionals both on and off the ice.
As a player, you’re better to listen to your coach no matter how tough he is on you, because you have zero leverage when it comes to getting traded out of there and you’ve already deep-sixed your NCAA eligibility by suiting up in major junior.
Under those circumstances, Sutter got the best out of his charges and players such as Colby Armstrong still refer to the lessons they learned back in Red Deer.
But maybe Calgary’s players aren’t hearing the message. Yeah, it’s rough to blame the coach when there are 23 other guys more directly responsible for the on-ice results, but this is the pros and only one thing should matter in Calgary right now – getting back into a top-eight spot in the conference and winning the franchise’s first playoff series since before the lockout.
In the pros, post-season wins are all that matter.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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