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.

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.

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".  

  • 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…


  • RCN

    Like I said at MaG, this team could have had a chance if injuries didn't hit 3 of our most useful players. Maybe Sutter himself realized that Jarome is likely done as an upper tier scorer, and understood that our best chance to outscore the opposition is by decisively winning 3rd and 4th line matchups. We had a hell of a deep team before injuries struck:


  • RCN

    I couldn't agree with "B" more, the team has one bad stretch of games (3 out of 18 points) that cost them a playoff spot and everyone is calling for Darryl's head. Yes the offense dried up this year, but how was Darryl supposed to know that Langkow was going to stop producing? How was Darryl supposed to know Moss would stop producing? How was Darryl supposed to know Jokinen would have a terrible year (In Cgy and NY)? The list goes on and on. I honestly believe that the Phaneuf trade had to happen, there's no reason Hagman can't bounce back and score 25, Stajan should put up 65+ pts and White produces at both ends of the ice. Last years first round playoff exit in my opinion was attributed to injuries. If Calgary had a healthy team I think they could have beaten Chicago. We were missing a number of guys, the biggest being Regeher. Could have Chicago beaten us if they were missing Keith/Seabrook? Not if you ask me. The biggest thing we are missing IMO is a young, skilled enthusiastic player, and that is the only place I can fault Darryl, he does trade away to many draft picks, but other than that I think he does a very good job. I ask you this, Where would this organization be without Darryl and the Contributions of the Sutter family?

  • To those suggesting my claim is to fire Sutter is because the Flames missed the playoffs – I emphatically expressed that this wasn't the case. He shouldn't be canned because the missed the dance. He should be canned because of his continued penchant for selling the Flames future short (for increasingly diminishing returns).

    The Calgary Flames are 9th in the Western Conference, have dealt their first and second round picks in the upcoming draft, have an aging core beyond it's peak and almost zero cap flexibility. It's all bad news. And it's not an aberration. It's how he's run this team for awhile.

  • This is a good atricle and a good read.

    My own opinion is that the Flames are a class operation from top to bottom. I think that the ownership group is one of the best in the NHL. Darryl Sutter is still among the best of the GM's in the NHL. I don't believe for a minute that he is living in the past as far as his methods of operation. He has nothing but the best interest of providing a winning team for the organization and fans. Everything he has done is for the good of the team. As with any job, sometimes things work and sometimes they don't, that happens to anybody in any situation, but at least he is doing something. In all, Darryl should definitely stay.

    As far as the coaching staff go, they are all highly skilled and competent in the modern day workings of running a team, and what needs to be done to win. They should also stay, it's the players who go on the ice and they are the ones who have to sort out their problems of implementing the game plans and showing some desire.

    For the team itself, considering the number of changes this year, especially later in the season, I believe that the team as it sits today, has a lot of dedicated hard working players. The players that have been added, have definitely not hurt the team since they came on board, and given a new full season to work as a team, it will definitely make the team a contender for next season's playoffs.

    There may be a need to fine tune the team a bit, but if they stay together for the most part,for next season, with a minimum of change, they will all start 2010-2011 on the same page, at the same time. To build a team you need that consistencey, and an opoortunity to give more time to work as a team.

    The power play definitely needs work, and I beleive that if the players spent some practice time shooting pucks on the net, that definitley would not hurt. We may not have a fifty goal scorer at this time, but we do have a lot of players on the roster that can score
    10 to 20 goals each a season, and that still makes for a winning team.

    As far as Jerome and Craig go, even thought they have had some rough times this year, they have heart and the experience to help the younger players meet their potential. I hope they can finish their careers with the Flames. It would be a shame to loose them. Hopefully everything can fit into the salary cap.

    The team has made too many changes over the years, and sometimes the staus quo needs to remain. Give what is in place a chance to work. Everything we need is already here.

  • Great article Kent!

    To those suggesting that Hagman and Stajan could bounce back and score 25/30 next year all I can say is keep dreaming. They were putting up those numbers in the East playing a lot of weak teams.

    I think Darryl needs to go – he's had a long time at the reigns and it hasn't worked. I think his demise was last years trade deadline – trading away a 1st round pick and Lombo (the guys a 1st line center now), then it continues to the decision of not resigning Cammaleri (if we don't sign Jokinen we have Iggy-Lombo-Cammaleri as a top line) then with the Phaneuf & Jokinen trades – that is Daz in desperation mode, trying to make something – anything work. IMO he pulled the trigger too quickly on those trades (I'm sure he could have worked a deal with Florida for Dion) and getting rid of Jokinen just adds cap! We would have been free at the end of the year to go out and grab a good FA. It's just a snowball effect of quick-decision trades that have taken us nowhere.

    It has been depressing watching the Flames most of this year – I was at the games in Toronto and Detroit this year and was so happy to see them pull off two great wins, Sutter needs to go, we need to cut our losses, hire someone who's gonna make smart decisions – what's Stevey Y up to other than sitting in an office in Detroit?

    So much speculation to be had on all of this, I am optimistic that Daz will be booted, we bring in someone who can salvage the team, maybe wheel and deal for a draft pick/some cap space – and here's hoping Kip stays just as solid as this year and we start getting Avalanche like luck.

    • RCN

      To those suggesting that Hagman and Stajan could bounce back and score 25/30 next year all I can say is keep dreaming. They were putting up those numbers in the East playing a lot of weak teams.

      Hagman put up a career high 27 in Dallas IN THE WEST. His 3-year average is 24. He's basically a 25 goal scorer with the possibility of hitting 30 in a really good year. Obviously, to depend on 30 from him is not smart, but if he can't get you 25 goals, something is seriously wrong.

      • Balthazar

        Exactly. Borque, Hagman, Kotalik, and Higgins all have a track record of multiple/consecutive 20 goal seasons. They ARE NOT 30 goal scorers. Having 4/20 goal scorers plus Jerome (30 goal scorer most seasons) is not a bad foundation for your top 6 wingers. Stajan is a 10-20 goal, 40-50 assist center, NOT a goal scorer. Backlund will put up Stajan like numbers during his career.

        The foundation on forward is there. Just can't find that number 1 center. Jokinen was that guy in FLA, but has choked in both Calgary and NY. With Setiguci, Pavelski, and Nabokov all up for free agency in SJ, it would be nice for Darryl to get a shot at signing Marleau for 7-8 Mill. Maybe even Kovalchuck for 8-9 Mill.?

  • Balthazar

    Great post, Kent. my overlong response to all the discussion:

    I agree that Daz has made some great moves but has also made some of the wrong ones setting the team where it is for the next couple of years. I'm not angry, just disappointed, in where they are.

    The three best things he did were acquisitions:
    1) trading for Kipper – obvious
    2) acquring for Bourque – long term core of the 2nd line
    3) drafting Phaneuf – high talent, great potential, tradable asset

    The worst were philosophies:
    1) believing the needed a 80's taskmaster to drive the team forward not a 00's strategist: hiring Keenan – lost two critical years for the core with no vision
    2) being parochial – ignoring offesive talent (from wherever – like europe for instance) for western character – this speaks to scouting as a whole I think
    3) believing in reclamation projects over youth development

    The team has its own development system now, which it didn't have for too long, it can be a development path. That's a good thing.

    It has few assets to develop, has cap issues and no short term draft picks. That's bad.

    Daz should go, with a "thanks for your best efforts, we came close"

    That said, tearing apart the team this summer is not feasible. You have some core assets that are tradable, but not many, that can keep the team competitive while you build a long term plan.

    Iggy is NOT, I think, NOT done yet.

    Ditch some of what's hurting your cap room – if you can: Sarich, Kotalik, Staios.

    Build a short term plan that allows for a long-term strategy.

    I like Duhatchek's thoughts on the G&M's hockey blog and podcast:
    – See if you can move someone like Regher (who I respect and support and would hate to lose) to strengthen the defense of an offesive team who might be 1 step away (Washington, LA?) and get a talented 1st liner back. Challenge Bouw to step up, rely on a diminished but still good d-core (Bouw, Whte, Gio, Pardy, whoever) in front of Kipper .

    Give Iggy two years with some talent and if it doesn't work / is futile, offer to move him to contender for the last year of his deal for a couple of decent (but probably not 1st round) picks.

    Timing lines up for when the Flames start getting their picks again, and 2012-13 are the hardcore rebuild years. Ramp up for 2014-15.

  • Balthazar

    Kent, I'm not suggesting that you are calling for Sutter to be fired simply because the Flames didn't make the playoffs this year. You obviously use some good examples of negatives to support you case.
    In your defence, maybe even if the Flames made another first round exit you'd be saying the same thing. But look at the stats in the West this year. To be a legitimate contender you need to have approximately 260 goals for and 220 goals against. The Flames will end the season with about 200 in each category. They also have an elite road record. Oh yeah, and the Flames will be around 10 games over .500 this year. Why not look at the reality of the situation rather than just jump on the "Uh, I don't know, let's clean house?" bandwagon. Sutter has constructed an excellent defensive and hard working team that gives Flames fans a reason to cheer every year. Why not simply free up 8 million in cap space by shipping of two of our oldest players Langkow and Sarich? Before you ask for Darryl's head, what are some possible moves he could make in addition to the one I listed to make be a top 4 team in the West next year?

    • Balthazar

      I dont see this team as hard working enough, I can think of one start to finish 60 min. effort all year. That was ONE game vs Vancouver…. a game I hold in high regard mostly because of how great Prust was… but DAZ got rid of him and Postagain for two heartless slugs.

      I would caution claims of "great defensive team" with an objective look at the larceny that is a regular part of the game of Kipper.

      Give him to any team in the league except maybe Buffalo and you will see a marked and significant improvement in their defensive play.

      • Balthazar

        My apologies for all my replies. I just finished my semester and have lots of free time on my hands. Roughneck, being hard working isn't about flying around hitting everything Philadelphia style. It's about positioning and dedication to the system. And for "being a great defensive team", WE ARE. We are tied for 4th fewest shots against per game this year, basically reflecting our goals against position. Yeah, we have a great goalie, Kipper makes some good saves, it's going to happen a few times out of the 28 shots a game he faces.

  • Balthazar

    Have you ever thought that it was Mr. King playing the role of GM as he pulled Sutters strings? There are a lot of deals that he did not want to do, like Dion to Toronto, that again was Mr. King. He has pulled the strings since Roland Cardinal was there in 04, when Brenda was questioning him about it in the post. Kent, do some digging like Brenda did, you would be surprised who you find is sleeping with the enemy.

  • JohnQPublic

    I posted this on another link too.

    For all the "we have no first round draft picks" critics. From 2004-2008 the Flames selected 24/26/26/24/25 in the first round. Darryl is just playing percentages because his teams finished some well during the regular season. Only half of all first rounders play 500 NHL games and most of those are in the top half of the first round. Look what Burke traded for Kessel, same logic.