A mix of favorable conditions and Sutter’s brand of failure-averse leadership were necessary but not sufficient factors in his eventual installment as the organization’s autocrat. It’s true that Darryl instilled a new brand of hockey in a unwieldy and seemingly defunct organization. It’s also true that he happened upon the throne at precisely the time when various factors were coalescing to foment a more success-friendly atmosphere. The maturation of organizational conerstones such as Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr in concert with the improvement of the Canadian dollar and the institution of a salary cap were the fruits of previous sacrifices and the fortunes of chance. The timing seems remarkable in retrospect, but was perceived as destinal at the time.
Alone, however, those factors don’t fully explain what followed. Darryl Sutter’s towering status in Calgary was not merely bred from a moderate step up the western conference ladder or a modest return to respectability. It was the meteoric rise from also-ran to contender that cemented Sutter’s reputation as a man weaving magic. Ken King has repeatedly praised Sutter as a genius more, but in truth that is an inadequate appraisal of the esteem Sutter garnered after the 2003-04 Stanley Cup run. Geniuses are smart men, but still fallible. Sutter, though, was performing miracles. The impossible. He wasn’t celebrated merely as a sharp hockey mind – he was deified as a messiah. "In Sutter we Trust" was a common refrain in Flames fandom until recently.
The Man Who Would Be King
The 1975 film "The Man Who Would Be King" centers around a couple of rougue ex-officers of the British Raj who set off for high adventure in 19th century India and end up as Kings of Kafiristan. Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) offer their services as military advisors to the chief of a war-torn village. During a victory over the village’s most hated enemy, Danny is struck in the chest by an arrow. He is perceived by the villagers to be a god when he plucks it out without injury. Of course, the truth is the arrow was stopped by a bandolier hidden underneath his clothing. A stroke of luck becomes a miracle. Danny, an ordinary man, becomes a god.
Dravot and Peachy continue to lead the tribe to victory and Dravot is installed as their unquestioned ruler. Danny eventually becomes drunk on the wine of power and develops delusions of grandeur; he fantasizes about raising Kafiristan to the level of a Kingdom and himself to a world-renowned monarch. Dravot’s hubris grows the longer he remains in power until, finally, he is revealed to the vilage to be a mortal man. Enraged, the natives snatch him up and throw him off a deep gorge…
The parallels between the film and Sutter’s tenure in Calgary are noteworthy. Without a doubt, his "arrow in the bandolier" was the Miikka Kiprusoff trade.
Kipper and the Cup Run
Darryl Sutter’s acquisition of Kiprusoff for a second round draft pick is roundly considered to be one of the best trades of the last decade: for the price of the 35th overall choice, the Flames received a goalie who would go on to become the best puck stopper in the league over the two or three seasons, a Vezina trophy winner and the organizations starter for the next 7+ years. It wasn’t mere thievery; it was miraculous. Particularly for a club that hadn’t developed or acquired a noteworthy goaltender since Mike Vernon.
It is of course unfair to assert that the Kipper acquisition was completely an artifact of chance. Kiprusoff had some decent stats under his belt by 2003-04, including a .936 SV% year for TPS Turku in SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) and two seasons in the AHL at .924 and .926 respectively. He made his NHL debut in 2001-02 for the Sharks, managing a .915 save rate in 20 games. There’s no doubt that Sutter was aware of all this when he made the move to acquire Kipper in 2003-04. For such a nominal price, the 28-year old represented a pretty fair chance to be a value pick-up.
On the other hand, none of his results to that point suggested he would suddenly become the best goaltender in the league either. Kiprusoff was relegated to a third stringer in San Jose because he fell flat on his face in 2002-03, garnering just five wins and an .878 SV% through 22 games played. The streak that sealed Darryl Sutter’s fate in the Sharks organization also sunk Kipper’s stock. The organization also had two other apparently competent NHL puck stoppers in Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala jostling for position. In retrospect, it’s incredible that the Sharks allowed a future Vezina winner to walk for next to nothing. At the time, though, it was an entirely sensible decision. There wasn’t a pundit, GM or coach around who would have predicted Kiprusoff’s improbable ascension to the top of the league.
That includes Darryl Sutter. The primary reason the Flames scooped up Kiprusoff was an injury to starter Roman Turek. From the horses mouth in 2003:
"I’m doing it because (Roman) Turek’s hurt and because (Dany) Sabourin wasn’t ready to win here and for the long-term picture, too. It’s about going forward. I wasn’t interested in bringing in another older goaltender or keeping an unproven kid."
Sutter needed a goalie, he knew Kiprusoff, knew he had some talent and experience and knew he was available for a song. Those are the reasons the trade was made. If Sutter figured there was a generational goaltender rotting on the vine in San Jose, he wouldn’t have waited until a quarter of a way through the season and an injury to his incumbent starter to acquire him. He made a low-risk, moderate-reward move out of necessity and hit the jackpot. He dipped his pan in a river for a drink and ended up discovering gold.
It was a remarkable find, but not one indicative of any kind of divinity. The fact that the Flames have struggled since to acquire or develop a worthwhile back-up or successor for Kiprusoff speaks to the fact that Sutter doesn’t really have an unusually keen eye for goaltending talent.
Kiprusoff wasn’t the only reason for the Flames Cup run in ’04 – no goalie wins or loses by himself – but he was no doubt the key ingredient. In fact, the Flames likely would have struggled to make the post-season without his .933 SV% in 38 regular season games. The club finished the year sixth in the conference with 94 points and a +24 goal differential. If Calgary had have stuck with Roman Turek and assuming a more or less constant .914 SV%, the difference between him and Kipper would have been about an additional 19 goals against over those 38 games. A win is equal to about 6 goals, meaning the Flames likely would have finished with approximately 88 points and outside of the playoff picture. Gone is the remarkable Cinderella run. Gone is the perception that Sutter can walk on water.
Even outside of Kiprusoff, Calgary’s playoff success was a thing of high improbability. The Flames were legitimate underdogs in every round. They faced consectuive division leaders, including obviously superior teams in Vancouver and Detroit. Iginla was elite, Regehr was effective, Kipper was remarkable, Sutter was coaching and obstruction was accepted, but in the end the Flames were mostly just another low seed that caught fire at the right time. The truth of this is obvious because the same group of core players with the same man in charge and bolstered by higher budgets and better line mates never managed to replicate the feat.
Sutter himself didn’t believe in 2003-04 club’s success in fact. After the lock-out he went about aggressively remaking the team. Gone were Denis Gauthier, Toni Lydman, Oleg Saprykin, Mike Commodore, Steve Montador, Dean McAmmond, Ville Nieminen and Roman Turek. They were replaced by Tony Amonte, Kristian Huselius, Roman Hamrlik, Bryan Marchment, Darren McCarty, Byron Ritchie, Philipe Sauve and rookie Dion Phaneuf. Kiprsuoff won the Vezina trophy that season and the Flames won the division, but their ouster at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in the first round was a sign of things to come.
All of this is obvious in hindsight, but to a fanbase starving for any kind of success at the time, Sutter’s arrival and the organization’s concurrent ressurection was like manna from the heavens. The hope that Darryl Sutter could breathe new life into the comatose franchise wasn’t met merely with small, incremental improvements, but instead with a sudden, explosive return to contender status. Everything went right in those early days. Sutter’s touch healed all wounds. The team played better under his tutelage. His every trade bore fruit. The Canadian dollar climbed, the roster budget soared, the price of players shrunk and the team felled apparent Goliaths in their path.
It was a deluge that ended a seven year drought and Darryl Sutter was the man who brought on the rain. It’s little wonder he was subsequently worshiped in the aftermath. That adulation was the foundation upon which he would build his edifice in the Flames front office. And, like Danny Dravot, it sowed the seeds of his eventual downfall.