The sample size is small but the difference is noticeable. Two games into Darryl Sutter’s second tenure in Calgary, the team looks bought in to how their new head coach needs them to play. In consecutive wins over Montreal, the Flames controlled possession, limited chances effectively, and played comfortably with the lead. These are encouraging signs, but it’s now on Calgary to prove this is more than just a “new coach” bump.
The story so far
Sutter’s formula isn’t complicated or novel, but it’s effective and proven. Much like his time in Los Angeles, Sutter preaches a few central principles: control offensive zone possession, put pucks towards the net, and pressure relentlessly without it. He hasn’t overhauled anything structurally, but has attempted to change the mindset.
At the core of it all is one of Sutter’s favourite two-word terms: shot volume. For the Flames to be successful, he believes they need to win the shot attempt battle on a nightly basis. For us analytics nerds, it’s a head coach talking Corsi and it’s paramount importance. It ain’t new from Sutter, however, as that philosophy drove his teams for six seasons with the Kings.
“We’ve talked a lot about shot volume, to be quite honest,” Sutter said a few days ago. “We don’t have the guys that are going to take over a game offensively like other teams in this division. More is better for us in terms of pucks at the net and pucks hitting the net as much as possible. We need more shots…I’m not worried about the percentages, I’m worried about more volume, more shots, more second and third opportunities.”
In Calgary’s two wins over Montreal, they have accomplished that goal emphatically. The Flames have won the five-on-five possession battle in five of the six periods under Sutter; the only exception was Saturday’s third period with a Canadiens team trailing by two. The even strength aggregate in those games looks strong, per Natural Stat Trick.
The two-game body of work we’ve seen is positive, no question. The challenge for Sutter is to get this out of his group far more often than not in the final 28 games.
“Very simply, if we want to win games, it’s how we’re going to have to play,” Sutter said. “The other way does not work. The stats and the analytics do not work out in this division if our percentages of pucks to the net per game doesn’t go up.”
Calgary has done a nice job in two key areas for Sutter: they’ve had the puck a lot and they’ve defended well without it. Those two play into one another, of course, but the Flames have done well with their details without the puck. Calgary has pressured effectively to force turnovers and they’ve limited five-on-five chances against; ten total in two games is very promising.
“At the end of the day you still have to a great checking team,” Sutter told me the day he was introduced. “You have to be a strong checking team in all three zones and that allows you to have the puck more and to hang onto the puck.”
There’s no question the Flames have executed well in two games under Sutter and played a brand of hockey synonymous with their new head coach. But this team has also struggled mightily with consistency this season, and for the vast majority with this current core. With a coaching change made, the responsibility shifts significantly to this group of players and how they respond the rest of the year.
Lots of teams get temporary bumps after making a mid-season coaching change. Sometimes it proves to be sustainable long-term, like Bruce Cassidy in Boston or Mike Sullivan with the Penguins. On the other hand, how quickly did things regress a few years ago under Ken Hitchcock in Edmonton? Calgary’s challenge is all about proving they’re the former.
Sutter’s track record gives me confidence this won’t be a short-term jolt. Until we get to April and May, though, we just don’t know. For his part, Sutter seems to have a simple, solid approach for the final two months.
“Our season started (Thursday) night and we started one game under .500. Everything else, to me, is just white noise.”