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.
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.
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.