Few figures in the history of the Calgary Flames have been more contentious than Darryl Sutter. Both universally loved and universally reviled at points during his seven year reign as the club’s general manager, Sutter is a man of competing, dichotomous narratives: the idiot and the savant, if you will. each seemingly valid and both worthy of further inspection. In this post, the first of a six-part series, I investigate the roots and inception of his rise to power in Calgary.
Darryl Sutter arrived in Calgary with an already strong reputation in the hockey community. The second oldest of the Sutter brothers, Darryl played 406 games in the NHL before retiring and becoming a member of the coaching fraternity. Hardworking and ill-tempered on the ice, Darryl brought a similar temperament behind the bench for the Chicago Blackhawks (1992-1995) and San Jose Sharks (1997-2003) before landing in Calgary in place of Greg Gilbert.
Sutter was Mike Keenan’s assistant coach in Chicago, debuting on a high note in 1992 when the club would finish first in the Norris division with 106 points. To this day, that total remains the best of coaching – and managing – career.
The Blackhawks extended fall from grace would begin apace the next season however and bottom-out in 1994-95 with a 53 point campaign. The failure resulted in a round of firings and Darryl would find himself unemployed until San Jose came calling in 1997.
An inchoate franchise at the time, the Sharks had stumbled through a number of their early years with some modest success and a few play-off upsets (Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames) under their belts. However, the years 1995-97 marked a solid step backward for the franchise, with successive bottom-of-the-ladder finishes and a return to the dreaded "rebuild".
Like his arrival in Calgary, Darryl Sutter was brought in to firm up a sagging organization. The Sharks would hover around the .500 mark for the first three of Sutter’s years as the head coach before finally posting winning records in 2000-01 (95 points) and 2001-02 (97 points).
Despite the ascension, their play-off success remained marginal, only twice advancing as far as the second round. In 2003, the team stumbled out of the gates amidst contract disputes with Evgeni Nabokov and Mike Rathje. The resultant 9-12-2-1 record was enough to cut Sutter’s time in Northern California short.
Despite the ignominious end to his tenure in San Jose, Darryl’s stock had risen around the league as a result of the Sharks franchise-best seasons he was able to author from 2000 to 2002. He remained out of work mere days before the Calgary Flames came calling.
Similar to the Sharks in 1997, the Flames had largely been wandering in the wilderness prior to Sutter’s arrival. The club hadn’t seen the post-season for nearly a decade and despite the growing abilities of Jarome Iginla, the mood around Calgary had settled into one of resigned hopelessness.
The fanbase had seen former franchise icons Al MacInnis, Doug Gilmour, Mike Vernon, Joe Nieuwendyk and Theoren Fleury escape to greener pastures as the club’s fortunes turned from success to failure in the mid-90’s. The stars were replaced mostly by failed experiments, ill-fated draft picks and the budget brothers of established NHL difference makers. Rob Neidermayer and Valeri Bure were elevated to positions of prominence in Calgary if only because of the dearth of other options.
The Flames perpetual rebuild was dubbed "The Young Guns" era by the franchise in a futile effort to sell hope to the fanbase, one that was rapidly falling into apathy in spite of a solid, enduring foundation of grass-roots support. That particular marketing campaign became synonymous with the dark-ages of the organization and remains a pejorative term to this day in Calgary.
The lackluster results and sky-rocketing payroll expenses conspired to deliver large splashes of red-ink to the Flames books, limiting the club’s player budget. Nonetheless, former GM Craig Button struggled against such constraints and made a number of noteworthy moves in an effort to revive the team’s ailing fortunes and credibility. He acquired Chris Drury and Roman Turek from the Avalanche and Blues respectively, but the pair flopped in the face of unrealistic expectations.
Calgary continued to flounder in the Western Conference basement.
Until, that is, the arrival of Darryl Sutter.
Ostensibly hired to replace Gilbert behind the bench, Sutter would soon depose the aforementioned Button as well, emerging as the club’s head coach and GM in 2003-04.
On a number of occasions, including the recent press conference in which he announced Sutter’s resignation, team president Ken King used the word "genius" to describe Darryl. That superlative seemed an apt one through the early years of his reign, when Sutter almost singlehandedly orchestrated the Flames return to competitiveness and respectability.
Everything Darryl touched turned to gold initially: modest deals to acquire marginal supporting-role type players like Marcus Nilson, Rhett Warrener, Chris Simon and Vile Nieminen seemed uncanny and prophetic when the rag-tag bunch made the 2004 Stanley Cup run.
Not that Darryl’s Midas touch was limited to the roster’s edges. Inside of his first three seasons, Sutter would perpetrate three of the most lop-sided trades in recent memory: Miikka Kiprusoff for a second round pick, Daymond Langkow for Oleg Saprykin and Denis Gauthier and Kristian Huselius for Steve Montador and Dustin Johner.
All three players would become difference makers of varying degrees for the Flames going forward and the best asset Sutter surrendered in the deals was Montador (or technincally, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who was chosen by the Sharks with the Flames second round pick).
The Kipper, Langkow and Huselius moves were masterful in retrospect given their success, but were also low-risk, high-reward gambles at the time. Langkow was a former first round pick and an established 20+ goal scorer who had spent the previous three seasons doing the heavy lifting for a bad club in Phoenix.
He became one of the three best forwards on the club the instant he was acquired. Huselius, although suffering a rotten season under the baleful glare of Mike Keenan at the time of the trade, had a solid history of offensive numbers behind him with two consecutive 20 goal seasons as a rookie and sophomore in Florida. Juice also led the Swedish Elite League in scoring during the lock-out with 49 points in just 34 games.
The team he played for – Linkoping HC – also featured Brendan Morrison, Mike Knuble and Johan Franzen, none of whom approached Huselius’ scoring rate. The lanky Swede formed a potent duo with Daymond Langkow in Calgary and was the Flames most efficient producer of points on the power-play during his time in town.
Kipper remains the grand slam of Darryl Sutter moves, however. Picked up to fill a void caused by injuries to Roman Turek and Jamie McLennan, Kiprusoff was relegated to a third string goalie in San Jose thanks to their wealth of options (Nabokov and a still functional Vesa Toskala) as well as the 20-game cold stretch in 2002 that saw Darryl fired as coach and Kipper himself fall out of favor in the Sharks organization.
Sutter reached back through his portal of former allegiances (something he would repeat often as the Flames GM) and plucked what was to become the best goalie in the league for the following two+ seasons for the price of a single, second round draft pick. The familiarity meant that Sutter was no doubt aware of Kiprusoff’s physical abilities as well as the solid pedigree that saw him post impressive numbers in both the Finnish Elite League and the AHL.
THE SUTTER SHIFT
Of course, Sutter’s influence stretched beyond front office negotiations and player acquisition in the formative years. Coach and figurehead, Darryl firmly steered a moribund organization back to vitality by imbuing the players and franchise with his virtually patented contempt for losing.
As the Flames atrophied from champion to also-rans to bottom feeders, the club spent the latter part of the 90’s with tattered hopes gripped in nervous hands, unendingly burdened with expectations of failure. The fans and players had grown used to hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. The path that led back to success was ill-rendered and, like an unobtainable desire, best forgotten.
Sutter’s arrival signaled an attitudinal change. Merely hoping to win was no longer acceptable. The grim scowl and taciturn manner that was both a signature and an indictment by the end of his time in Calgary was, in fact, a welcome and celebrated signal to Flames fans when he was hired: here was a man who detested failure and would brook no acceptance of it.
He sketched his contempt across his face without apology and communicated it to his players and the press constantly. He instituted policies that became pillars upon which the Flame’s early success were built: always expect to beat your closest rivals (Edmonton Oilers) and never play an easy game in your own building. Cliches and the basest of expectations upon first glance, but they were policies enacted with firm, unbending expectations that they be met.
Behind the bench, Sutter molded a motley collection of plumbers into a fierce, aggressive, thoroughly unpleasant opponent. In 2003-04, featuring little more than Iginla, Regehr, Kipper and a host of third liners, the club finished with 94 points and a +24 goal differential. Much of that can probably be hung on Kipper’s .933 SV%, but the truth is the Flames only allowed 25.5 shots against per game that year (fifth best in the league) and despite their rather lackluster forward corps finished with a positive shot differential as well (+1.9/game).
The Flames trapped fiercely with Sutter at the helm and took full advantage of the lax obstruction rules prior to the lock-out. During one particular pounding of the Bruins that season, I remember a member of the Boston organization (coach or player, can’t recall) remarking ruefully "all they do is ice the puck". And that wasn’t too far from the truth. Darryl Sutter’s Flames turned the neutral zone into a quagmire and the corners into dungeons of woe.
Everyone finished checks and they hit to hurt. They hooked. They held. They crowded the ice surface with sweat and violence. Everyone hated playing them. It was a welcome change for Flames fans after years of Calgary being perceived as "the easy W" on the schedule of their rivals. They followed up in 2005-06 by winning the division in roughly the same manner, although the crack down on obstruction put a dampener on some of the rough stuff.
The club’s overall talent remained humble outside a few of the cornerstone players, but the Flames were fiercely competitive on a nightly basis.
Of course, the culmination of Sutter’s coaching, attitude and roster changes was the fabled cup run of 2003-04. While simply making the post-season was a momentous event that year, the city exploded in rapture when the Flames unexpectedly made it past the first round and beyond.
After all, the last time the club had won a playoff series was 1989 – the year of it’s only championship. Long dormant memories of success were awakened. New fans were carved from a once sleepy market. Hope for the present and the future blossomed in the hearts of Flames faithful for the first time since the team started routinely falling to lower seeds in the early ’90s.
It was a revolution. A renaissance. And a single man seemed to be the heart and cause of the re-awakening.