Sutter, Iginla and the Unbearable Lightness of Leadership



Here are a few things bouncing around my head as the 2011-12 regular season comes to a close for the Calgary Flames.

Brent Sutter is a Sorcerer!

This dropped late last week, but Eric Francis thinks Sutter deserves a new contract.

Before I set out here, I’ll say I’m entirely ambivalent on the subject of Brent Sutter and of hiring a new coach at all. Mostly because I find most NHL coaches all cluster together into a sort of fungible middle-class outside of a few very good and very bad ones. Brent has been entirely conventional during his time in Calgary from various angles so I think he belongs in that, big, squishy middle somewhere.

Anyways, there are probably arguments for re-upping Brent in the off-season, but Francis doesn’t find even one of them. For example, he says the Flames "second half surge is largely a product of pure coaching mastery".

Hilariously, the Flames have been routinely, grossly outshot in much of the second half. They have one of the worst shot differentials in the entire league and the worst goal differential of any Western Conference playoff hopeful. All of their top line players are deeply underwater in terms of scoring chance and possession ratios. This is, without hyperbole, the worst iteration of the Calgary Flames we’ve seen in the last three years. I guess if you want to attribute "winning despite all those things" to Sutter, then you can join the now crmubling church of Yeo with Wild fans.

There are few, notable exceptions keeping things interesting, of course – Kipper is having his best season since 2006-07. Curtis Glencross is leading the NHL in SH%. Jokinen, until recently, was riding some of the best percentages he’s seen in a Flames jersey. Throw in Jarome Iginla’s recent points run and baertschi’s uncanny debut and you have the Flames hanging around the playoff picture.

But let’s be clear here – that’s the stuff of randomness. It has little to nothing to do with coaching. If Brent could magically raise Kippers SV% or Glencross SH%, he would have done it in prior years (and for longer). And probably for other players as well.

"Somehow in the midst of a season littered with significant injuries and setbacks, Sutter has his team believing it can make these playoffs."

"If there’s anything we’ve learned about this year’s collection of Flames it’s that the coach has to somehow find a way to push all the right buttons for this team to perform on a nightly basis."

When you use the term "somehow" to explain something…you are probably just restating the question. There’s nothing especially magical or unexpected happening with the Flames, aside from a marginally unlikely run of games here and there (which were matched by a few terrible stretches early. Remember them?).

Also, I’d like to retire the phrase "find a way to push the right buttons" from the pantheon of sports writers cliches. It’s like a meteorologist telling people it rained yesterday because the conditions were right for rain.

In reality, this is all just Francis’ mind reacting to the implicit syllogism the team is winning therefore the coach is doing something right. But he can’t explain that something and he doesn’t bother to challenge the assumption in his head, giving way to the psychobabble you see in the article.

Things go on like that in the same vein…"even healthy this team isn’t good enough in the eyes of most to make the playoffs. But he’s got them demonstrating such tremendous character and resolve…" This was written, of course, before Calgary fell in consecutive games to the Oilers and Blue Jackets. Take note – this is how reasoning from results (especially short term results like Calgary’s five game winning streak) and fabricating stories to explain those outcomes can make you look foolish pretty quickly.  

This Team Needs a Messier

Speaking of psychobabble, I’d like to request a moratorium on explaining the Flames lack of success as "a problem with leadership".

I have no issue accepting that guys with experience (or who are good in the room, or who really want to win, or can tutor the young guys or whatever other quality you want to attach to the fuzzy concept of "leadership") is probably a good to have, all things being equal. But it astounds me how much your average messageboarder or water cooler fan thinks it matters versus things that happen on the ice.

I talked about this at length over at Puck Daddy awhile ago, but I’ll restate the conclusion in short form here: when it comes to grading "leaders" or "winners", most of what we perceive is just post hoc rationalizations of results. How good a collection of guys are at actually playing hockey, the coaches decision-making, the sway of the officials and the bounce of the puck are far more important to the final outcome than who is giving moving speeches in the dressing room.

To put it another way, the Flames would be far easier to fix if their problem was merely leadership.

The Flames Slowing Hart

The dual issues of overweighting leadership and making broad claims based on recent results comes together nicely in Harrison Mooney’s recent piece on Jarome Iginla as Hart Candidate.

Arik over at M&G already took a swipe at this, so I can will keep my own thoughts on the matter brief.

Iginla, despite his recent surge, is having an entirely mediocre year. He boasts (likely) the worst possession rate of his career, he is outside the top-60 in the league in terms goals versus threshold (GVT) and he gets routinely outshot and outchanced. Furthermore, in terms of importance to winning on th team this year, Jarome isn’t even in the conversation with Miikka Kiprusoff. I’d even argue that Alex Tanguay has been a bigger driver of scoring on the top line than Iginla for most of the season. 

I’ll re-frame the discussion not by saying that Iginla isn’t important to the Flames – he clearly is. Instead, the problem is Jarome Iginla is still so important to the Flames. If the roster was constructed so that Iginla was a supporting piece, rather than the fulcrum of the offense, they wouldn’t be struggling to claw their way into 8th just to be cannon fodder before the elite in the first round.

This isn’t an attack on the Flames captain, nor a an attempt to run him out of town or sully his incredible career here. It’s a statement of fact: the assignment of being a top-line, power-vs-power player in the NHL is beyond Iginla at his age. Which isn’t to say he’s useless or anything – just that he’s at a transitional stage in his career where he needs other people to do the heavy lifting to be truly successful. Iggy is still durable, in good shape and can put up points – but his scoring costs the team more and more going the other way and it gets worse year after year. And that’s the way things go for guys as they age before they inevitably drop off altogether.

Naturally, the perception of Jarome as a Hart caliber difference maker is due to a mix of his long-standing reputation with his recent scoring streak. Add in the idea that games in March are more important than games in October or November (not really) and you have an Iggy for Hart campaign. Again, what we’re talking about is mostly randomness, a misundertsanding of results vs true talent and sampling bias.

Scoreboard Watching

San Jose faces the Anaheim Ducks tonight. If they win, the Sharks will displace the Stars atop the Pacific Division lead and jump up to third in the conference. That would temporarily bump Dallas back into the post-season dog fight with Colorado, Phoenix, LA and Calgary.

  • loudogYYC

    As far as Sutter goes, while I’ve been pretty vocal in that he’s not the main cause of this team’s failures, re-signing him doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either.

    • everton fc

      My two cents…

      Brent has to be sacrificed. And I agree with Wolf – he’s not the main cause of this team’s failures…

      We start slow every year, and can’t make up ground. Big problem. Huge.

      What we need is complete change at the top. New president. New GM. New coach.

      New direction…

      We are mired in our past. People think Feaster’s an improvement because he signed Baertschi; most teams would have scooped him at the 13th spot. So he picked up Blair Jones off waivers… So what? So he picked up Comeau… So what?? He signed Babchuk. He signed PL3. He promised “playoff hockey” We will most likely be watching other teams – perhaps event he Jets – in the playoffs while we all wonder how we can get back to our glory years…

      We need to do what Tampa Bay is trying to do – complete overhaul in the executive branch of the tree. We won’t, though, due to the obvious obstructions.

      As for Iggy’s leadership, how it affects the team, a good Pres/GM combo would have neutralized Iggy and brought in a few seasoned pros who know how to command the respect and attention of all in the room. Iggy should not be our centerpiece player. He should be a cog in the wheel.

      Might I add… In my opinion… Ryan Smyth is a better leader at a similar stage in his career than Iginla. And he clearly recognizes his role, and performs it well in front of the the current cast of kids up north. On and off the ice.

      Again, just my opinion. Means very little. If anything.

  • everton fc

    Iginla is overrated. During his watch, his team missed the playoffs for seven straight years. His team has only made it past the first round once since he began his career (the team has only made it past the first round once since 1989). How long have observers been saying, “The Flames need someone to play with Iginla?” How many players have been plugged into that line, then moved on? Maybe it’s him. Maybe he’s not very adaptable. All he does is fly the zone, even before they get the puck out. Very rarely passes. His yearly points total is 71 per season. I could overlook that if he had seasons where he missed significant games due to injury, but he never has. He doesn’t sound like a hall of famer to me.

    • PrairieStew

      Good grief man.

      Every, and I mean every guy above Iginla in the career goal totals played in an era where more goals were scored and 90 % of them played with multiple hall of famers. Iginla will end his career without ever playing with a single one – unless Kiprusoff gets to top 10 in wins and that hardly helps a forward. Name a player who has played with Iginla and gone on to better production elsewhere. Conroy?, Maccammond?, Andrew Cassels? Marc Savard might be the only one.

      71 points in this era is pretty close to a 100 point season in the the 80’s and and early 90’s.

      In Gretzky’s 212 point season league scoring was 43% higher than this year. That means Iggy’s 31 goals as a 34 year old is a 44 goal campaign. In that season no one over 30 scored 40 – Lafleur had 27 – he was 30 at the time.

      The point is – Iginla among the 20 best offensive players of all time.