The time has come for the Calgary Flames to bid adieu to the Sutters.
Though still mathematically alive to make the playoffs, the fact of the matter is the Flames have regressed in giant steps this season and have no business competing for the Stanley Cup. And for that reason, GM Darryl Sutter and coach Brent Sutter must pay the price with their jobs.
Expectations were high in Calgary this season, mainly because the Flames had five solid cornerstones and a defense-oriented coach with a winning resume. Captain Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff are among the best in the business at their positions. And with a defense than included Dion Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr – all among the final 10 or so rearguard candidates for the Canadian Olympic team – the blueline was the envy of the entire league.
GM Sutter’s task was to supplement the five pillars with serviceable role players and coach Sutter’s job was to implement a system that got stronger and more refined as the season progressed. Both Sutters failed and with a 2010-11 payroll that’s already at $53.4 million, it’s hard to imagine improvement next season.
Perhaps GM Sutter’s greatest undoing – not just this season, but since taking the job in 2003-04 – was not finding the right player to center Iginla. Craig Conroy worked for a while, but was never a long-term solution. Daymond Langkow had back-to-back 30-goal seasons centering Iginla, was signed to a four-year contract worth $4.5 million per season, then bumped to the second line where his production dried up. GM Sutter did the Phoenix Coyotes a favor last season taking underachiever Olli Jokinen and his $5.25 million contract off their hands – giving up a first round draft pick as part of the return.
The intention was good, but Jokinen never panned out under coach Sutter’s system and was a February salary dump to the New York Rangers. Problem is, the players he got in return, Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik, have scored just three goals in 30 games since. And sadly, offense-challenged Kotalik is on the books for $3 million each of the next two years.
It’s tough to fault anyone for the rapid disintegration of Phaneuf as a defenseman in Calgary. The 24-year-old former Norris Trophy candidate became totally lost in his own end without the puck and stopped generating much offense – and didn’t respond to coaching. Convinced the Flames couldn’t win with the cornerstone system, GM Sutter dealt Phaneuf to Toronto for depth players, which isn’t a bad notion, but then he signed Matt Stajan to a $14 million contract over four seasons and Stajan went on to prove he can’t produce on the top line with Iginla and Rene Bourque (Stajan’s Calgary stats prorated over a full season are 13 goals and 51 points).
Niklas Hagman is a serviceable second- or third-liner, but even his production has been lean (scoring at a nine-goal, 34-point pace in Calgary). Jamal Mayers is playing well on the energy line and Ian White is a marked all-around improvement on Phaneuf. Sadly, though, the Flames have just $3.8 million in cap room next season – assuming the salary cap stays at $56.8 million – and six roster spots to fill. Those spots include fourth-liners Eric Nystrom and Mayers, two more forwards, a backup goalie and White. Keeping White is a priority because of the trade and that’ll cost in the neighborhood of $3 million.
Since the influx of new players, the Flames have won 10 of 19 games, which isn’t enough to make the playoffs any season, unless you factor in that loser third point.
Ironically, it’s Brent Sutter’s failings as a coach that are making his older brother’s managerial moves look bad. The Flames clearly haven’t bought into coach Sutter’s system. Perhaps it’s too archaic in today’s transition to aggressive offense, employed by the game’s exciting teams. For sure the Flames have been a bore to watch, averaging just 28 shots per game, fifth worst in the league.
Since January, the Flames have the league’s most anemic offense. And that has to be routed back to coaching. But then, coach Sutter has shown a litany of shortcomings, from Phaneuf falling off the rails to Jokinen not meshing in, to the third-worst offense, the sixth-worst power play, the second-worst faceoff percentage. And aside from White and Mayers, the new players aren’t making a difference.
What’s worse, the Flames may not pick ‘til the fourth round in this June’s draft and there’s not a lot of jaw-dropping skill in the development system. Only Mikael Backlund and Ryan Howse look like second-line skill players.
For those reasons, it’s time for the Flames to move past the Sutters. Fortunately the time is right because Steve Yzerman is a GM in waiting and Ken Hitchcock is looking for a coaching job. Both men worked well together for Team Canada at the Olympics.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can find his blog each weekend.
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