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".