How Darryl Sutter took a team of nobodies, made them great for one spring, and killed the franchise again in five years flat.
Darryl Sutter’s largely unfortunate reign as Flames general manager started with the bang that allowed him to choke a decent and up-and-coming franchise back down to the position to which we’d all become rather accustomed.
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Sutter’s acquisition of Miikka Kiprusoff was the first move he made as general manager. It wasn’t (that honor goes to trading a vocally unhappy Chris Drury to Buffalo), but it will go down as the most significant and best he ever made.
At the time, of course, we all had our doubts. Trading a early-second-round pick in a decent but not great draft year for a third-string goalie who couldn’t buy ice time at his local rink, let alone with the Sharks, seemed a bit of a fool’s errand. And after what he got for Drury (Rhett Warrener and Steve Reinprecht), no one was sure that this wasn’t a similarly disappointing return. But hey, Roman Turek was gonna be out awhile and you don’t wanna lean on Jamie McLennan and a call-up for more than a couple of days, no matter how bad your team is. And the Flames at the time were pretty bad. Kiprusoff was acquired on Nov. 16, and Calgary was 6-8-0-2 at the time. Fourteen points from 16 games. Second to last in the conference with Columbus hot on their tails. This Kiprusoff trade looked like a shuffling of deck chairs at the price of a pick in the top 40. He was, many believed, 0 fer 2 on trades.
And then something funny happened. Calgary caught fire, winning 11 of their next 15 and losing just once in regulation and climbing all the way to fourth. Kiprusoff was the reason, and coach/GM Darryl Sutter the mastermind behind it all.
I don’t have to tell you what came next. The first playoff appearance since 1997, thrilling postseason victories over Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose, each a wild, back-and-forth slugfest punctuated by series-clinching daggers from one little-used veteran. Then the ultimate disappointment: a controversial Game 7 loss in Tampa in the Stanley Cup Final.
But still, Sutter was now DARRYL SUTTER, unequivocal King of Calgary who took a ragtag group of relative nobodies and Jarome Iginla all the way to the brink — some would say past it if you count that Gelinas non-goal in Game 6. It was a team littered with thugs, agitators, career underachievers and grinders as high up as the first line (Craig Conroy was the only forward behind Iginla in TOI). But they played Sutter-brand hockey and, backed by a nigh-invincible goaltender, they were about to be the darlings of the Western Conference.
Perhaps the second-worst thing to ever happen to Darryl Sutter, besides him buying into the In Sutter We Trust hype, was the lockout, and the league’s insistence that high-scoring games rather than defensive trench warfare was the way back into a bemused and disenfranchised fanbase’s heart.
If you go back and watch that Cup run by the Flames, you’ll see about 300 penalties a night by Flames forwards and defensemen go completely uncalled. Most infamous was a play in which some Red Wings forward or another broke into the zone and literally had a Calgary defenseman jump on his back to produce a turnover. Stick infractions, holds, you name it and the Flames did it under Sutter’s ruthless iron fist. People say Mike Keenan is a domineering coach, but Darryl ran that team like a military regiment. All the antics of guys like Ville Nieminen and Chris Simon were almost certainly his call. Why else would he look at a team with almost nothing but grinders and trade for those two meatheads at the deadline? Mind games. Wearing teams down physically and mentally over an arduous seven-game series. This was Sutter Hockey.
And the lockout meant he couldn’t play it any more. Not that he didn’t try. Calgary still won a boatload of games and their division in 2005-06, and took the sixth-most penalty minutes in the league doing it. Sutter was still bulletproof after bolstering the Flames’ roster further with serviceable veteran Daymond Langkow and a midseason trade for Kristian Huselius. But he also made the puzzling decisions to sign rickety old Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty for no readily apparent reason. Worse, he traded Reinprecht to Phoenix for Mike Leclerc and Brian Boucher (remember THAT?).
But hey, winning is winning no matter who’s on the roster, so Sutter felt confident going upstairs and letting associate head coach Jim Playfair take over. There was also the ill-fated but well-intentioned trade for Alex Tanguay in the offseason. But the Flames despite winning 43 games, crashed out of the playoffs in the first round again.
Winning 40-plus games every year is a decent way to ensure routine trips to the playoffs and a good way to keep your job as a general manager. Putting asses in the seats is easy after an improbable Cup run, and winning the division the season after that will likely keep them there awhile. Owners like winning teams not because they win, but because they make money.
So there can be a few things said at this point. For one, Calgary was winning rather a lot. Not a ton, never enough to even be top-4 in the conference, but enough to draw fans and make the playoffs and drive revenues, which gave Sutter license to sign guys right up to the salary cap.
You and I can argue about the inherent fairness of the North American sports playoff system, which bases ultimate success not on the achievements over 82 games against teams league-wide, but rather on a gimmick tournament that lasts just 28 games at most. But the point is that apart from one fluke of a postseason, which we’ve seen happen dozens of times in league history (take for example the 2002 Hurricanes and 2003 Ducks and 2004 Flames and 2006 Oilers and 2007 Senators), Darryl Sutter’s teams just didn’t pass postseason muster.
And still fans soldiered on, supporting Darryl under the belief that the team was really just one No. 1 center (a mythical creature of which there are just 10 in the whole world, and about 10 more that look like one until you put them under a microscope) or top-notch defenseman away from really being there. Mike Cammalleri, it turned out, was neither of those.
In his pursuit of these things, and that mythical Cup that we all naïvely believed was fairly likely, Darryl defied convention. Where most Cup-winning teams were anchored by young superstars and cheapish goaltending (Carolina and Pittsburgh and Chicago) or a host of players with generational talent (Detroit) or both (Anaheim), Sutter stuck by the Old NHL belief that older was better, experience trumped youth, and no movement clauses ensured top talent would come to the club.
The latter was true to an extent. He was able to retain his vaunted "core," which now included second-line revelation Rene Bourque, while attracting good to great free agent names (how the played was a different story). But around the time he brought in Olli Jokinen, things went completely off the rails.
This, Sutter said, was what he had always wanted: a No. 1 center to run the pivot for Jarome Iginla and run up the score on any who dared oppose them. Except that Jokinen, who had been linked to the Flames for several years for no readily apparent reason, was no longer a No. 1 center. "Good," Darryl surely thought, "All that underachieving in Florida and Phoenix the last few years drove down the price." To the point where he only cost the tidy sum of a first-round pick, Matt Lombardi and Brandon Prust. A sizeable price to pay, but one that most agreed had to be paid because, well, everyone in Calgary just been saying it for so long.
Things went bad right around the time people figured out that Jokinen wasn’t very good. The countdown to Keenan’s firing was a much-celebrated event. The senseless and fruitless Dion Phaneuf trade less so. The Jokinen trade (for oft-scratched Ales Kotalik of all goddamn people) made the lamentation over the loss of Lombardi and the wasted that much worse.
Things went absolutely bonkers when he brought Jokinen back, for TWO years, and gave him the team’s seventh no movement clause. It was on that day that Flames fans said enough was enough. Seemed like the team did too. Even at their worst last year, they didn’t look as bad as they have in spurts this year, and the highs, what few there have been, were not very lofty either. Darryl is gone now, asked to step down by the team president way too late to save the season. Meanwhile, it seems like his replacement is intent on maintaining the status quo at least until the end of the year. Probably beyond.
Can’t lean too heavily on those veterans. After all, they have the huge contracts to live up to.