Flames Season Review – Darryl Sutter

Calgary Flames v Vancouver Canucks


It is no hyperbole to state that this Flames season has been an abject failure from just about every conceivable angle. And it’s no exaggeration to claim the the fault of this catastrophic failures lies at the feet of the club’s sole, obstinate architecht, one Darryl Sutter. As the authoritarian, patriarchal overseer of this now Sutter-homogenized fiefdom, he gathered to him all his family and followers, firmly wrested control of the organization from his ostensible superiors and, without apology or regret, steered the ship straight into an iceberg.

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The gravest indictment of the Jolly Rancher isn’t, in fact, the lack of a playoff berth. That just lends pragmatic weight and clarity to the principled objections to his leadership and management. Plenty of good teams miss the post-season now and then for various reasons – since approximately half the league is excluded from the dance every year and lady luck is hardly egalitarian with her affections – golfing after 82 games isn’t, in and of itself, reason enough to convict a General Manager of ineptitude.

No, finishing 9th or 10th isn’t why Sutter should finally be usurped from his gilded throne. One merely needs to look backwards and forwards in time in order to come to that conclusion. From this spot amongst the wreckage of 09-10 season, one can discern the bold and obvious trend line which made this outcome inevitable. Perhaps more disturbing, projecting forward suggests this season’s disappointment is likey to to continue in perpetuity should Sutter remain as the organizations sneering autocrat.

A GM has one, obvious, overarching, principle goal: to build a winner. That goal is balanced by two, sometimes competing endpoints: "win now" or "win later". The best managers are able to build a team with both endpoints in mind. The mediocre ones often vacillate between the two depending on the circumstances while the worst can do neither. Since the 03-04 playoff run (perhaps both the best and worst thing to happen to this franchise in the last decade) Sutter has opted for "win now", mostly eschewing a moderate, balanced approach to team building. Some could argue that the finals appearance forged a sort of path dependence in the mind of the Flames decision maker, one that has forever guided his decisions and colored the timbre and attitude of his tenure. Sutter had an elite team, you understand. One always just a tweek or two away from re-visiting the glory of a deep playoff run. And with each first round disappointment, with each inexorable step away from the core players peak seasons, Sutter has seemingly become more convinced that the oasis is just over the next hill, more ensured of his inevitable final victory, more insulated in his tower of babel and yet paradoxically more frenzied in his attempts to push the team over the top.

Ironically, it’s been Sutter’s flavor of "go for it" that has sunk the team into mediocrity since 03/04, and painted the franchise into the cap-strapped corner it’s in now. His tendency to fill roster spots with known commodities – ex-Sutterites and veterans – has bloated the roster’s budget and bled the team of cheap talent. As Darryl has gone about locking up key pieces to long-terms deals and exponentially more expensive contract extensions, he’s also surrounded them with slowing vets and dubious reclamation projects, many of whom for multi-year, multi-million dollar deals.

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That was my take on the Flames season. In 2008. There’s a reason it seems eerily similar to the club’s current predicament: Sutter has been treading this path for a long while. The difference this year, of course, is the fact that the team’s future has never looked bleaker thanks to his rabidly desperate mid-season machinations. It’s one thing to gamble future success for short term gain. It’s another thing entirely to make objectively bad bets. Sutter’s moves were all with an eye to firming up the team’s immediate present. None of them did that. What’s more, none of them were likely to do that. His only remotely defensible trade – Dion Phaneuf for Maple Leafs parts – didn’t even move the needle in terms of improving the club’s offensive struggles. The rest of his bartering was, to be polite, inscrutible. There hasn’t been a comment or analysis yet that renders the Olli Jokinen for Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik trade remotely sensible. Dustin Boyd for a 4th round lottery ticket grows ever more ridiculous the further away we get from it. And the Steve Staios acquisition, well…that’s yet another sacrifice before Sutter’s near fetishized regard for "leadership and experience" – even though those particular qualities have never proven to be all that useful in actually winning games. The team grew heavier in Sutter’s desperation – older, more plodding and more cap bloated than ever. What’s more, he has nothing to show for his riverboat gambles: not in the form of current success and not in the form of optimism for future success.

Next season, the club is poised to pay nearly $10 million dollars to the likes of Cory Sarich, Steve Staios and Ales Kotalik. The franchise has a bulk of it’s dollars committed to players over the age of 30 (Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kiprusoff, the others aforementioned), meaning the core is aging and beyond it’s peak season(s). It has zero difference makers in the organizational pipeline and, with all of two choices inside the top 60 picks over the next two entry drafts, almost no chance of picking up another one any time soon. The best of Iginla, Kipper, Reghr and Langkow has been squandered. There is precious little in the way of budgetary flexibility and prospects to replace them. The assets in hand have been used almost to the point of obsolence while the currency of the future has been spent.

This is the worst of both worlds.

Many, many difficult decisions face this team going forward. The question is, should Sutter be the man tasked with making them?

Glance again at the wreckage of the season. Recognize that it is not ill-fortune but the excercise of principles of operating under a cap environment – principles that Sutter has ceaslessly sought to flout for the purpose of "winning now". Observe that Sutter has now delievered the club back to the apparent hopelessness from whence he retrieved it. 

Realize that the answer is "no".  

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  • Awesome work. Scary how similar it is to last year's analysis, just with a few more trade examples to throw on the evidence pile. I'm sure the ownership is coming to the same conclusions as you are, but I guess we'll have to wait. When the announcement comes, you, WI, and myself can either celebrate or commiserate on the patio at the Ship.

    Oh, and you said "fetish". *grin*

      • RCN

        Umm… wow. I totally did not see it coming when you dropped that paragraph from 2008! Good stuff dude! I've made it known that I'm a long-time Darryl supporter… I find it increasingly hard to disagree with your take. I like his body of work until this season. I'm in the minority that would like to see him given one more year to clean his mess up. The problem – based on this past season alone, I'm not sure if I can trust him to do so (whereas you seem to be certain you can't trust him to do so). I'm open to change, but I'm also open to one more year of Daz Dillinger.

  • Kent, you make being a Flames fan for the next few years appear to be about the most depressing thing I can imagine. I've always been a "glass is half-full" guy but it appears the glass is empty.

    Oh man, it really is bad.

  • Oh snap! Absolutely 100% well put. I think I might frame your writeup. Since the beginning of March, Daz has ruined all my enjoyment in following the Flames. The fact you have been able to capture my anger in words leaves me dumbfounded. But my serious concern going forward with the Flames is that I just don't feel comfortable with Daz making anymore decisions for the team. I'm willing to give his brother the benefit of the doubt but Daz has to go. At some point too, I think the franchise should never hire, draft, or acquire anymore Sutters than they already have.

  • Balthazar

    In a lot of ways, Sutter reminds me of Pat Quinn during his first few years in TO. Joining up mid-season, coaching a decent playoff run, handed the GM reins shortly thereafter. He also was responsible for not surrounding his team's sole superstar — in this case, Mats Sundin — with no appreciable talent worthy of a Stanley Cup contender. Like the Flames, the Leafs at the time had some moderate success in the regular season coupled with a sequence of early round exits.

    The primary differences are that Sutter stepped down from coaching after a couple of years, whereas Quinn eventually relinquished his GM duties. That, and the Flames had Kiprusoff, whose penchant for stealing games did more to keep Sutter in Calgary than anything else.

    I like Sutter. His rude attitude toward the press doesn't bother me. I'm a results-oriented fan, meaning if the results aren't there, someone has to be made responsible.

    In summary, I have nothing more to add to Kent's comments.

    I'm tired of making excuses.

  • I've never been a fan of Darryl's and the comments you made are bang on – missing the playoffs is not 'the' reason to fire him, but I think it needed to happen in order to get some focus on the inadequate job that he is doing.

    I blame him for the poor style of play (read: lack of offense) as he attempts to recreate the coaching style of 03-04 with every coach he hires. Each coach takes this team to exactly where they should be (somewhere between 6th and 8th place in the west) and then is ousted for not making a miraculous run in the playoffs.

    I blame him for destroying this teams future with bad contracts on underachieving players.

    I blame him for not allowing the future players of this team to develop properly.

    I've never understood this "In Sutter we trust" BS that has been prevalent in this city. He took Craig Button's team to the cup final and lost (No, that 'goal' was NOT in). Then he dismantled that team to put his own stamp on it, continually moving the focus from offense to defense, from future to now, and from young to old.

    Now we have one of the best defensive, and absolutely the most boring, team in the NHL. And the worst part is that short of some miracle, it isn't going to change.

    And for Pete's sake, can we keep Iginla? Give him an offense to play with? There are 29 teams salivating at the rumour that he might be traded.

  • It is no hyperbole to state that this Flames season has been an abject failure from just about every conceivable angle.

    That's a relief. I wouldn't want the use of hyperbole to make the language of this post any more flowery and verbose.

    On a more serious note, excellent post. As a Rangers fan, I'm fascinated to see the other side of incompetency in the GM's position. I also empathize with what it's like to have a GM who offers a substantial body of failed work to draw conclusions but still remains in his lofty perch. I respect the Calgary franchise a great deal, and hope you get the new direction that the Flames have lacked since 2003-04.

  • @ Matt

    Marks deducted for style, but a good grade for content. Gotcha. Part of me kind of wishes I had come up with some grandiose analogy for the opening sentence now though.

    Anyways, my worst fear is that the Flames become the NYR. That's not meant as an insult to Rangers fans (whom I have pitied for awhile now). As you say, there's some parallels between the two orgs.

    • It's a fair point, though the one major difference is that Sather is still fairly decent at trades. For example, he clearly fleeced Sutter and the Flames in the Jokkinen/Prust for Kotalik trade and previously managed to bury the Gomez contract in Montreal.

      Slats just undoes all that goodwill by signing an albatross like Redden or Brashear, or vastly overpaying a good-but-not-great player like Drury. It would take quite a while for the Flames to catch up to the Rangers in the reckless spending department, and here's hoping Sutter doesn't get that chance for you guys.

      But they both clearly lack any kind of real direction. It's the cardinal sin of any GM and really drives your points home.

  • Excellent work.

    Between you and George Johnson, Sutter has been given a nice heaping plate of humble pie. Not that he'll care to eat it.

    Here's my take: Sutter inherited an underrated team and got it on a roll at the right time (04). A few tweaks were all that was needed to bring the trophy home, or so many of us thought.

    Who better than a no-nonsense Alberta legend to make those tweaks?

    It would take a grievous lack of judgment to disagree that Sutter has made as many bad tweaks as good, overpaying on the majority of them. He's been given time, a budget, freedom, and a revolving door of coaches.

    At some point, everybody's accountable. And yet how can it be that two Calgary Herald reporters are declaring his job safe?

  • Good read Kent. I hope they just completely gut this team's front office this offseason, and give the reigns to a regime that understands the core of this team won't be able to compete in the New NHL. I like the New York Knicks approach- dismantle the team and acquire a bunch of expiring contracts that will be gone. After a brutal losing season, a couple years of high draft picks and some marquee free agents down the road should help recreate a winning atmosphere. Unless they can somehow rebuild on the fly like Anaheim is doing, but you need a Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan to really do that- the Flames don't have that luxury at all. Our assets are all going to rapidly decline soon- why not deal some of these guys to teams before its too late? Washington would love a Regehr, Chicago would love a Kiprusoff, and St Louis could use a responsible centre like Langkow as they approach the future with their growing nucleus of youth.

  • RCN

    The Flames miss the playoffs one year and this journalist is asking for Darrly to be fired. Is he kidding??? I thought George Johnson was a sensationalist hack, this journalist is even worse. The Flames were more or less the laughing stock of the league from 1996-2003 before he arrived. He aquired Kiprusoff, Bouwmeester, and Bourque for vitually nothing. The Flames were one of the top defensive teams in the league this year. So 3 guys (Kotalik, Hagman, Higgins,) this year didn't produce. If they would have lived up to their 20+ goal potential/track record the Flames would have made the playoffs. Lets not forget that Jokinen didn't produce either and he was a 30+ goal scorer. Oh ya, let's not forget that Phaneuf hasn't scored ONCE with the Leafs. Don't run this guy out of town. You'll be sorry you did. What is the alternative?

    • RCN

      As an Oiler fan, we've said that about O'Sullivan, Gagner, and Penner (up until this year)

      if the TML had their 3rd liners produce 20/40 per season, they'd be a playoff team

      an easy retort would be that if Bouwmeester, Iginla, and Kipper got hurt, they'd be 29-30th place team ( Edmonton has 30th locked up )

      I'm no physics major, but potential energy isn't movement, it's standing still
      With no picks and aging stars, the Flames may be in worse shape than the team up north, who've atleast hit their low point

      • Balthazar

        "an easy retort would be that if Bouwmeester, Iginla, and Kipper got hurt, they'd be 29-30th place team ( Edmonton has 30th locked up )"

        That's an easy to say for any team though. If your leading goal scorer and starting goalie go down any team would struggle. Especially when you consider the caliber of players Iggy and Kipper are. I fail to see your point.

    • RCN

      No one is saying that Sutter didn't make some good moves. Kent is saying that his bad moves unbalance the equation in the direction of "he's a poor GM." Bourque, Dawes, Backlund, Kipprusoff, Glencross. All good. Bouwmeester was overpaid (I thought that before he had this fat dump of a year offensively) on his contract. The Phaneuf trade, not bad as long as White gets resigned. Lombardi+1st rounder into 5+ million dollars worth of guys who can't score, Staios, Boyd for a 4th rounder, Bertuzzi, Phaneuf's stupidly large contract, Tanguay/Huselius/Nolan, McElhinney, and his stress on old-style "defensive hockey", all bad.

      Sutter constantly got rid of guys who were very useful to the team (Nolan, etc), signed guys he had no business signing, overpaid on almost every contract he's signed to date, and has focused this team's identity on being a grinding dump-and-chase team of poor offensive calibre. I've been complaining about Sutter for 2-3 years now, and I'm sure Kent has been doing the same. This has nothing to do with missing the playoffs and everything to do with the choices Sutter has made.

  • maimster

    Up until a month ago or so, I'd been defending Sutter to some extent because it has always felt to me like deep sixing Sutter meant a complete overhaul, and that in turn means a return to the 97-2004 period, which sucked in every way. Anyone advocating a complete teardown has always seemed to me like they didn't live through those years.

    However, they've now reached the point where they're already there. I've always figured that if they can build around the core and keep flexibility, they'd be alright. But suddenly the flexibility is gone – there are too many large contracts for too long and tearing down is the only way to start the rebuild. And Sutter can't be the one to do the rebuild.

  • RCN

    you hit it right on the head 5 years of sutter (suffer) style hockey is enough.you hav
    e to be able to score in the west to win. regeer,too slow,bowmiester a pilon,sarich not good enough for the money

  • RCN

    @Stienberg – That's pretty brave of you Pat. /tips hat

    Good read indeed Kent. Outside of the fact that draft and prospect wise we are essentially hosed for a couple of years, the one glaring mistake I feel Darryl made and I felt I needed to comment on is the dismantling of the cup contender after the '04 run. I think about it still and was never able to understand why on earth he refused to resign Conroy (gone again after this season?) and Gelinas after that season. I know Conroy wanted more than Sutter was willing to pay, but man those two guys alone seemed like 1/2 the heart of the organization. Nevermind the fact that Iginla and Conroy actually had chemistry back then but Gelinas was so clutch down the stretch and into the final. I have to admit I was astounded. Seriously Darryl? No rewards for effort here? That '03-'04 team was one of the hardest working and committed group of players I've ever seen.

    At this point, my feeling is that Brent deserves to stick around. This team is in the top 5 defensively in the league, and yeah I agree trading scrubs for more scrubs at the deadline seems lame duck but let's face it, Darryl, if left sleeping in the bed he's made, he's gonna have to jettison the chaff. Looks like Hagman and Stajan will stick for sure but Higgins and Kotalik? Hope not. Mayers? I hope so, and I hope he re-signs Nystrom pronto too, pretty wicked PK if so.

    Two players could make the difference, if he can do something with Higgins and Kotalik and maybe finally Backlund matures into the top prospect we've been hoping for. This season 2 players that could have made the difference were Bouwmeester and Moss. If they have seasons like '08-'09 we have another +20ish goal differential and given all of those 1 goal games this year, it could have been a huge difference maker. Now they certainly weren't the only undeerachievers in this years lineup, and I do almost feel like I've come full circle in defense of Darryl, but I think truly as punishment, he should be forced to fix the mix in this mess. The past couple seasons first with Jokinen and now Stajan centering with Iginla just seems to be some sort of nasty wash. It sure would be nice to see Backlund pick up that slack though and emerge as that guy that can actually play with Iginla. Maybe I'm wrong but those 2 difference making players need to be able to find consistent chemistry with Iginla. It would be nice if nothing else to see him pot another 40+ for a couple years.

    Is that last paragraph the Sutter paradigm? Have I got myself fooled into the same thing we've seen year after year since he took the reins? I watch every game and think to myself almost every single time; "If only Jarome would show us a power move out of the corner and snap a wrister past xyz" and "Damn we just need a true topline center for Jarome and we'd be cookin'". Yeah I'm not believing in Sutter we trust, the old-timer reclamations have never worked, but yet I still believe this team, as good as they are offensively are only a couple tweaks away from a return next year to the playoffs.

    Wait, I am caught in that damnable mixmaster…

  • RCN

    This line at the end of my comment:

    "but yet I still believe this team, as good as they are offensively are only a couple tweaks away from a return next year to the playoffs"

    Is supposed to read 'As good as they are defensively'

    Not offensively, it even offensive of me to describe them as good offensively isn't it…