Yay Optimism – Brent Sutter’s steady improvement



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It has been discussed around these parts in several comment strings, but the point should be covered in a full article: Brent Sutter’s decision making has improved by leaps and bounds since he was first installed behind the bench, likely for more than one reason. One of the reasons to look forward to 2011-12 is that the Flames head coach is positioned to deploy his troops in the most ideal ways possible.

I was a fairly big supporter for bringing Sutter on board in the wake of the Mike Keenan era. In fact, I openly wondered why Darryl had not hired his brother in lieu of Iron Mike in the first place. Brent arrived in town after a couple of decent seasons in New Jersey and some strong years (and world junior championships) in the WHL. Outside of vague worries about the increasing level of nepotism in the Flames organization, there really wasn’t any reason to doubt Sutter’s abilities. I was particularly encouraged by the 51-27-0 record the Devils enjoyed under his leadership, as well as the development of guys like Zach Parise and Travis Zajac during his time there.

Nevertheless, Brent’s tenure in Calgary started off on shaky ground. His first significant error was revisiting the Jokinen and Ignla experiment in October 2009. What’s more, Sutter deployed the pair as if they were Datsyuk and Zetterberg, consistently skating them against opposition’s best lines and starting them from their own end. The combination persisted through the first two-three months of the season and they got murdered. After 30 games, for instance, Olli Jokinen’s chance differential was -4.7 per hour of even strength ice time, good for worst amongst regular skaters on the team. Both guys were the worst on the club in terms of raw differential at that point as well with -23 (Iginla) and -39 (Jokinen) trailing even checkers and pugilists by significant margins.

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Sutter began to find his footing as the season went on, shifting the burden more towards Langkow and Bourque at even strength and moving Jokinen down the rotation. Unfortunately, the 9-game losing streak hit the club and brother Darryl went off the deep end. Phaneuf and Jokinen were hustled out of town, followed shortly thereafter by the acquisition of Steve Staios and an injury to Langkow. What followed was a comedy of errors: Ian White was paired with Robyn Regehr in a shut-down, an assignment almost directly opposite to what had raised his stock so assuredly in Toronto. Steady Steve went from a lackluster third pairing option on the worst team in the league to facing top-four opposition alongside Jay Bouwmeester. Matt Stajan was hastily re-signed thrust into the "#1 center" role, where he swiftly proved to be completely inadequate.

It was all a lot of nonsense. Naturally, the Flames fell out of contention and missed the post-season.

The view was grim from a few angles heading into the next season. Brent had made some fairly fundamental errors in his first year behind the bench. My eyes nearly rolled back in my head when Darryl re-acquired Jokinen – the potential for the Jarome-Olli pairing to face the league’s heavy hitters again was anathema to me at that point.

Luckily, Brent had learned his lesson from the prior season in regards to Jokinen and Iginla. Unfortunately, the collapse of that experiment gave way to another: Matt Stajan as first unit center. The erstwhile Leaf held on for about a month thanks to some nice percentages, but rapidly fell out of favor. As did Ian white, who also started the season in his prior ill-fitting role as Robyn Regehr’s defense partner. It didn’t take long for the diminutive blueliner to get overwhelmed and then shipped out of town with the publicly embarrassed Brett Sutter for Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopolous.    

The real shifting of gears occurred after Darryl’s unceremonious dismissal at the end of December though. Not only did the club’s fortunes turn around in terms of the percentages, but Brent started coaching the team in an entirely sensible manner: Bouwmeester and Regehr were paired as the shut-down tandem for good, Iginla and Tanguay were given the high ground at even strength. The focus became far less conservative relative to the prior season (a time when I would watch Brent send out the Flames fourth line after an icing in the third period during a game the team was losing and want to throw my computer through the television). Anton Babchuk moved down the rotation, Stajan found the fourth line while David Moss, Curtis Glencross and Mikael Backlund moved up.

Suddenly, strategies on the ice started to make a whole lot more sense. Despite their record of futility against the top-end teams, the Flames were an improved club and a strong outshooting/possession team in aggregate over the final few months of the season. The poor start sunk their playoff chances, but there is certainly evidence that an experienced Brent Sutter – now unencumbered by his older brother’s expectations and meddling – is capable of guiding the team to it’s maximum potential.

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It’s an open question what that potential currently is, but I’m willing to bet it’s north of 10th in the western conference. What’s more, Brent Sutter’s job may be made easier this coming season by the return of Langkow, persistence of Glencross/Moss and improvement of Backlund – all of which we will touch on later this week. 

  • RexLibris

    While I’m not sure what benchmark (pun intended) I’d use for success/failure for Sutter with this team. It seems like the Flames are in that no-man’s land where they can finish in or out of the PO depending only partially on their play, but also to a large degree on the play of the other competing teams. I know this sounds obvious, but some teams find themselves at the mercy of competition more easily than others. Like last year when it was the Flames, Chicago, Detroit, and I think Nashville who were competing and it always seemed like Chicago and Detroit were perpetually in the driver’s seat with that race. So in that regard I would argue that success for Sutter would best be measured by an improvement in consistency rather than the difference between 10th and 8th.

    BTW, what’s Sutter doing with his face in that photo? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that on one of the brothers before. Has he suffered a concussion?

    Speaking of which, what’s the reaction about THN picking the Flames to finish 10th in the West?

      • RexLibris

        I suppose the Flames have managed some consistency over the past few seasons, ao you’re right, it probably was a short conversation around the editor’s table: “where’d they finish last year? 10th. What’ve they done since? ….. Okay, 10th again, it is! NEXT!” I know most reasonable fans in Edmonton were less than surprised about the predictions for the Oilers. Anyone who complained was faced with the fact that they could win ten more games and only move 1 pt ahead of where Colorado finished last year. So again, no much debate. I hope they pick the Canucks to miss the PO, just to see if the fans have picked up any rioting tips from the UK over the summer.

        Like I said, based on competition, it is possible they come in at 8th, or 10th, 13th if they have a rash of injuries to key (read Iginla, Kiprusoff) players. The advantage that they Flames have right now is that their roster is so full of role players and veterans that they all seem to have a certain degree of plug-and-play-ability that can mitigate the losses due to injury.

        • The middle of the Flames rotation is very strong – better than average at least. The top-end is good enough to beat up on weak sisters and the blueline is probably at least average if not better than.

          If Kipper is better than replacement level and they avoid injury, I think the ceiling is 5th or 6th. If Kipper is crap again and people get hurt, 10-11th is entirely possible.

          • RexLibris

            I understand the 5th to 6th ranking. Assuming Dallas and Nashville, or maybe Anaheim might drop off, San Jose, LA, Van and Det all improving or holding. Then Minnesota and perhaps Columbus moving up, 5 to 6 isn’t impossible, barring any surprises from upstarts. Then again as the saying goes: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

  • SmellOfVictory

    He has to be smarter than he showed when Darryl was around. I am not buying into the second half “miracle” being the team for the coming year, but I do like Brent as a coach and think that he is a smart hockey guy.

  • RexLibris

    I’m sure he had to try power vs power and give it some time. He’d lose respect in the room for not first trying the obvious match-ups then transitioning for the more suited match-ups.

    This method gained him more pull to do it his way, IE sheltering those who didn’t (at first) think they needed it, and in turn, took off on one of the most memorable regular season stretches in recent history.

    This team is coming into the season as a tight knit group and that can only bode well for the standings come season’s end.

    Book em at 5th or 6th place Kent, you know you wannnna….

    • I’m sure he had to try power vs power and give it some time.

      Given the pricetag of the guys in question the their reputations, that’s probably reasonable. He gave them a few weeks too many to get things figured out in my eyes, but I’m glad he eventually learned his lesson.

  • Optimism week… I like it so far. An article with actual ‘reasons’ to be positive.

    Brent’s first year and a half made me really wonder how he was so successful previously and whether or not he was actually equipped to be very good at the NHL level. But, he did adjust, like you pointed out. And, it’s something to look forward to this season for sure.

    I still hope to see the team change their “just-get-it-out” defensive-zone mentality… but I’ll take baby steps for now!

  • SmellOfVictory

    Ok, now keep in mind I quit smoking the real good Columbian about 30 years ago. If we do well & I would say 7th, 8th or a very close 9th come mid Feb. What do you do then? The better the likes of Hagman, Sarich, Moss,Langkow, Hannan play, their value at the trade deadline goes up dramatically. Do you turn down the opportunity of 2nd & 3rd round picks and/or good prospects for these UFA pending players & heaven forbid we parlay an acquired 2nd & one of these guys for a 1st round pick. Do you do it knowing you have a shot at making the playoffs but the opportunity to restock some critical young prospects in a deep draft is knocking on your door? Seriously Kent, if you were GM I would be curious what you would do?

    • RexLibris

      Boy am I glad you’re not the Flames GM. If you were to move pieces like Sarich, Hagman, Moss, et al for draft picks (not a 1st, sorry, but maybe there’s still some Tijuana Gold in the veins) at the deadline and stock up on picks in a deep draft year you’d be making WAY too smart a move for a GM.

      As an Oilers fan I have to admit that when I look over the roster at Capgeek.com (any reward for the shameless plug?) it does worry me a bit that Feaster might do the prudent, if difficult, thing and move all those expiring UFAs out for picks this year. The timing is perfect, but I think the will, or at least the franchise goal, is unwilling at this time. When I remove all Oiler bias from my point of view, were I a Flames fan, or a fan of any struggling team for that matter, I move out everything not nailed down or considered a building block for the future out this year for picks. My reason being that with there being some phenomenal scorers this year as well as the best bumper crop of defencemen in a generation, more talent is going to fall to later rounds. As an Oiler fan my hope is there is something we can do to acquire another 1st round pick this year (probably not going to be Lombardi’s, huh?) to capitalize on the windfall.

      If the Flames were to trade the UFAs and stock up they could drastically improve their farm system and in the end, by having a small dip in the standings for one year, insure themselves for years to come with depth at several key positions.

      At least you don’t have to ask WWDD: what would Darryl do?

      • The will to do a sell off will depend on where the team is at the time I suspect.

        When I look at the expiring contracts on NHLnumbers.com (actual shameless plug), I don’t see anything that will garner the Flames much in terms of futures. At most, you might get a second rounder for, say, David Moss or Olli Jokinen. Feaster putting up a for sale sign at the deadline won’t alter the future of the Flames unless they deal real, major assets (Iginla, Bouwmeester, Giordano, Backlund).

        • SmellOfVictory

          Still, if they did a major sell-off they could end up with as many as 3-4 2nd rounders (Sarich, Jokinen, etc). Not exactly amazing, but a definite start.

          And really, depending on the way things go for various teams, someone might overpay for Kipper and bring the Flames a 1st, I think. That may be dreaming on my part, but the laurels on which he rests are rather substantial.

          • RexLibris

            If Kipper plays like last year and Feaster is not shopping him around like a 4th Ave pimp he is not doing his job. Kipper’s salary over the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons is only $6.5 million ($3.25 million per season), but he has a cap hit $5.83 million. If any budget/cap floor teams are looking for goaltending depth for a run at the playoffs or for two more seasons I think there will be someone who will take a flyer on Kiprusoff in a 1 or 1A type role. I am thinking of teams like Florida, Phoenix, Islanders or Columbus.

            I am convinced that Vokoun’s deal had everything to do with him going to Washington to make the playoffs and win a cup and nothing to do with the market whatsoever. I cannot otherwise explain the money paid to Bryzgalov, Giguere, Theodore etc.

          • ChinookArchYYC

            Or Varlamov or Niemi for that matter. Look at Roloson & Thomas, older goalies with lots of success in their older years. Totally agree that after this year Kipper’s value will actual go up for some teams you mentioned above.

      • Well you know, there are Flames fans & even owners hanging on to the hope that this can still be a competitive playoff bound team for the next few years. That may very well be true. But there is a minority of us that can see into the crystal ball & I dont like what I see after 2-3 years. So I would probably be too rambo. But I think there has to be a middle ground to accomodate the many fans who appreciate the pride that Iggy & Kipper have given us. So OK, lets keep the assets that I believe could really accelerate a rebuild. So keep Iggy, Kipper,Tangs, Gio, JBO, Backlund moving forward. Trade the pending UFA’s & get as many 2nd & 3rd rounders you can & possible almost ready prospects that cant the chance on teams & hope to get lucky. Next go hard after Parise & in 2 years maybe a Bartche’ or Reinhart & Brodie are ready & we get lucky & these kids look like Eberle/Hall clones. It would be a ballsy thing to do but to trade a pending UFA having a decent season in the middle of a playoff race could get yourself huge youth returns without going through the controversy of trading Jerome. That to me would be a compromise rebuild that would be accepted by a larger portion of the fan base. The real lottery win would be trading a few of these guys for huge value & overpayments, bring in some kids who play over there heads & we still make the playoffs. Then Feaster would be in the running of GM of the year. I would call that the “Happy Ending” like on Waynes World. Party on Rex:)

  • Brent definately looked like a better coach to me after Darryl was “dismissed”. I like the fact that Iggy and Tangs didn’t go power vs power because the fact is, they would not score as many goals, and that is what they are put on the ice for, not to be the best defensive forwards, to score goals. I think these are the lines Brent should use for forward lines at least at the start of the season.


    I think when Morrison is healthy he could possibly play on the wing on the 3rd line and until he is healthy I could see Hagman playing there. I don’t see P3L playing much unless a guy like Hagman is sent down to the minors, in which case he might find some fourth line duty.

  • While trading guys with nothing left on their contracts for 2nds or 3rds makes sense, I cannot imagine the team doing it. In the must win what have you done lately environment that is the NHL it really isn’t tolerated in thought form.

    I think if the team is in 10th at the deadline with no hope sure it would make sense. But the flames would actually come into the trade deadline in a 5-way tie for 6th thus making the win now voices harder to overcome. It would be nice to just move a marginal piece or two for those desired picks but I’m skeptical on such an event taking place.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    “a time when I would watch Brent send out the Flames fourth line after an icing in the third period during a game the team was losing and want to throw my computer through the television”

    Kent, I’ve been reading your work on this site for over a year now, and I don’t remember that kind of rage from you before now. Maybe you can focus that on our “friends” in Vancouver or Edmonton next time, besides computers and TV’s are expensive.

  • kbignell

    I can see the flames pulling off a playoff spot next year. The flames team is coming back better, With Langkow and moss healthy, as well as backlund bringing his game to higher level.

    Some teams in the western conference haven’t made themselves better. Detroit’s team isn’t getting anymore younger and with the loss of rafalski at the blueline, makes them a little weaker, but they do still have lidstrom. The coyotes haven’t bettered there team at all and with bryzgalov gone, there goaltending could be an issue. St.Louis and edmonton haven’t done anything to make themselves a better team this year. The teams to watch out for are the kings and sharks these teams both have made themselves better teams. The sharks have a stronger blueline now especially with bringing over bret burns. The kings have more scoring now with Richards and gagne there.

    With a start to the season without his older brother there, Brent sutter will have the flames coming out of the gates like they did on their second half of the season last year.

  • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

    I have my doubts we’ll being seeing any sort of sell off during the season. Baring some significant injuries the Flames will be where most of us expect them to be come February…….Fighting for a playoff spot.

    Even if they do fall behind, and considering we are talking about the flames here it would have to be way behind, they won’t enter any sort of fire sale. And besides the Flames likely don’t have the assets to garner any sort of significant return. Unless you consider a 2nd round pick to be ‘significant’.

    As far as I know this organization has never dealt legitimate NHL players to stock pile draft picks, and I don’t think we’re about to start seeing that happen. It’s just not in their vocabulary.

  • RexLibris

    @Kent Wilson
    I know that their relative position and strength going into the end of Feb will determine whether they buy or sell, that’s a given for almost every team at this time of year. But stocking up on 2nd and 3rd round picks is exactly what the Flames should be doing right now, after years of DS trading them away. That being said, my own personal preference is for the Flames to squeak in and keep the status quo.

    Actually the Oilers have done something to improve themselves in the offseason by adding some tough guys who can play 8 or 10 minutes a night and a solid, depth centreman who can win FO and is effective on the PK. They haven’t improved the defense much and the goaltending is still in limbo, and the team was so bad in stretches last year that we could improve by 12 pts and still be in an anchor race for the bottom. But there has been improvement to at least provide some veteran backing. St. Louis will probably reap the rewards this year of their late-season trade with COL last year.

    @Kevin R
    I know there are fans who see the team going in either direction, and based on probabilities either could end up being correct. As for keeping a core, the players that I think Calgary should keep are Iginla, Giordano, Brodie, Backlund, and you’re picks from the last two years. Everybody else, I think, ought to at least be on the table. Some won’t or can’t move, but it could be surprising what getting rid of a few 2nd and 3rd liners and playing guys like Wahl or Nemisz might get you. They aren’t scoring 30 goals and 60 pts, sorry to say, but they might get 12 goals, 25 pts and be cheaper, more enthusiastic options from what’s there now.
    Calgary’s recent picks in Reinhart and Baertschi aren’t going to become Hall/Eberle clones, but are tracking to max out as good top 6 wingers (I’m thinking of examples like Setoguchi and Versteeg, or even Bourque). You’ve got a future depth centre in Nemisz, and a second-pairing puck moving/PP defenceman in Brodie.

    Like you’ve said, I think it will be a middle of the road, let’s try to please everyone, reload. As I see it, the death of a club is all but an inevitability in the NHL. There are exceptions, but eventually it happens to most. Some teams, like the Oilers, go through it by exploding in a grand, dramatic, glorious ball of fire 😉
    Others go about it slowly and more conservatively, I’m guessing the Flames will follow the latter course, rather than the former. But the longer they wait, the more likely the giant ball of fire.

  • RKD

    Two of the best moves Sutter made this season was putting Jokinen, Glen X, and Moss all on the same line.

    The second was employing the mantra of winning 2 out of every 3 games. That seemed to really work for the team. Wish it had been done sooner.

  • Vintage Flame

    If everything we hear out of Feaster is true, and that it will the responsibility of Brent and his coaching staff to make all on ice decisions then I think we’ll see the Flames make a step in a positive direction.

    Once he was calling the shots in the 2nd half of the season, we were seeing lines deployed in a more productive manner, ie the top line, and it showed results in the play of the players and the team.

    That being said, this has to be a big rebound year for certain guys, and from what I’ve heard, they are making those priorities.

    I’ve heard Stajan is working out with Gary Robert’s program. That is very encouraging. That will have to be a plus for his game, after the brutal shape he was in last season, injuries or no injuries.

    • RexLibris

      Ah yes, Stajan, Hagman, rebound & the better to trade them with too!
      I think Brent is a great coach irregardless of the direction we take, he should be in there. What I like is that he has the hockey smarts that can compliment Feaster in discussions of future trades & acquisitions.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    This may be off topic, but ‘irregardless’ is not a word. You mean ‘regardless’. No need to thank me, I live to give.

    On topic, I reserve the right to be pessimistic about the new season. Articles like this aren’t helping with that however, which is good.

    A positive attitude and an ever increasing amount of time since the end of last season, and I’m almost beginning to feel nearly optimistic about our chances of not missing the playoffs.

  • RexLibris

    I’m not sure if this is fuel for optimism or not, but take from it what you will. Apparently the vegas line on the odds of the Flames winning the Cup this year are 35/1, tied with Carolina, and right behind Phoenix, Nashville, Anaheim, and Buffalo. Vancouver sits 6/1 and Pittsburgh is 7/1. Edmonton is 65/1, which isn’t last, but is tied near the bottom with the Sens. Florida is picked as the least likely.

    So from an optimistic point of view, every year there seems to be a team that sneaks in and goes on a tear.

    From a pessimistic perspective though, there seem to be an awful lot of those middling teams this year and it may get crowded.

  • icedawg_42

    I like the optimism. I dont necessarily have them as high as eights. As far as the teams “progress” – I heap a lot of their troubles on the shoulders of a meddling big brother. Guaranteed the Ian White and Iggy/Olli pairings had his big footprint on it. I also credit Brent with much of the team’s success…I have a gut feeling that behind the scenes he did a very good job.