Under Sutter and Treliving, the Flames lack accountability and withhold opportunity
Photo credit:Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould1 year ago
Since the beginning of training camp, it’s been clear that Darryl Sutter has a very specific vision for his hockey team.
At this moment, that vision appears to be fundamentally flawed.
Sutter has elected to draw from the same well for months when it comes down to how he arranges his forward group. The two-time Stanley Cup winner seems to value size and veteran presence on the same plane as skill, even when his team can’t buy a goal.
The Flames have certainly added talented players through the draft, to the point where they’ve been able to build a championship-calibre American Hockey League squad. Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Phillips, Connor Zary, Emilio Pettersen, and Dustin Wolf (among others) have driven the bus at various times for the Stockton Heat and the Calgary Wranglers.
You wouldn’t know it if you took a look at Sutter’s training camp groups, in which he stashed all those players far, far away from their established NHL counterparts. The head coach clearly had his guys identified weeks, if not months, before camp even started.
Phillips, Pelletier, et al played just two games in the preseason (which, in and of itself, is a largely meaningless sample). They didn’t even last in camp until the end of September.
Did they ever get an opportunity to show what they could do next to Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Nazem Kadri, and the like? Not a chance.
The Flames remain the only team in the NHL not to graduate a single draft pick from the last five years.
Sutter is a top-tier head coach and a safe bet to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame at some point in the future. He played a key role in the Flames becoming a 111-point team out of nowhere last season.
But he also took a significant part in the Flames’ downfall in the playoffs, refusing to match lines while the Edmonton Oilers dominated with their duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It felt like those two never left the ice, especially as they feasted in shift after shift against the Flames’ fourth line — hopelessly outmatched in a situation they never should’ve been in.
That trend has continued into this season. Milan Lucic has regressed to the point where he’s arguably the least effective player taking a regular shift in the NHL. He hasn’t been a healthy scratch in nearly a decade — never in four years under Sutter — and it certainly doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon.
The Flames have five forwards currently playing (at best) replacement-level hockey: Lucic, Dillon Dube, Brett Ritchie, Trevor Lewis, and Kevin Rooney. (There’s a strong case to be made that both Lucic and Rooney have been significantly below the NHL’s Mendoza Line). But, without fail, Sutter has dressed at least four of those players in every single game this season.
Sutter has continually promoted the likes of Lucic and Lewis into top-six roles at baffling moments this year despite them clearly being ill-suited to those minutes. This, while the Calgary Wranglers continue to shoot up the AHL standings with a 9–1–1 record in their last 11 games.
With all their weaknesses at the bottom of their forward lineup, it truly defied comprehension to see Sutter elect to single out Adam Ruzicka — a rare ex-farmhand who has seen NHL action this season — for a demotion in a recent game despite him chugging along at a tremendous scoring pace to start the year. Inexplicably scratched for much of the first month of the season, Ruzicka has charged forward since with five goals and nine points in his first 11 games.
But, in the midst of a brief three-game scoring slump, Ruzicka took the fall. Sutter’s reasoning:
“He wasn’t sharp enough. There’s a leash, too — you go three or four games and your game starts dropping off. There’s still a reckoning for those young players.”
Lucic has gone 80 games without scoring a goal with his hockey stick. He has scored one goal by any method in that span. Kevin Rooney has not scored an NHL goal since December 7, 2021.
The Flames are coming off a week in which they scored eight goals in four games. They tallied two of those goals on empty nets. Surely that merits a reckoning for the players who aren’t contributing, right?
Nope, guess not.
This situation doesn’t entirely rest on Sutter’s shoulders. Influential as he undoubtedly is within the organization, he’s not the general manager. That’s Brad Treliving’s job.
Treliving memorably appeared on Sportsnet 960 The Fan in the weeks leading up to the momentous 2022 trade deadline, at which the Flames made significant personnel changes without first giving any of their top prospects a look.
Sportsnet radio host and FlamesNation contributor Pat Steinberg straight-up asked Treliving about Pelletier and Phillips during that February interview. Treliving’s response: “They’ve both earned an opportunity here at some point.”
Instead of presenting one of those two players with an opportunity before the deadline, Treliving went and traded four draft picks to acquire Calle Jarnkrok and Ryan Carpenter. Together, they managed one goal in 37 games with the Flames.
The Flames clearly needed to make some changes leading up to the deadline — that’s why they made those moves, and Jarnkrok wasn’t even a bad target — but it’s bewildering that they didn’t first turn to their young players before parting with four draft selections to add a pair of veteran depth forwards. Just four months later, the Flames made a franchise-low three picks at the 2022 NHL Draft.
It’s impossible to get around the fact that Jonathan Huberdeau, Andrew Mangiapane, Nazem Kadri, Elias Lindholm, and many others have underperformed for the Flames to start this season. With a few more goals here and there, this team might be in a very different spot.
But even when the Flames were winning games in the playoffs last season, Sutter was being outcoached and Treliving’s expensive acquisitions weren’t performing. Now, things look significantly worse.
The Flames need to give their top producers the opportunity to play their way out of this funk, but they also need to give them some help. NHL teams draft players for a reason and the Calgary Wranglers have three of the AHL’s top 15 scorers (including No. 1).
It’s time to see some accountability. The veteran players who aren’t producing need to sit; the young players ripping it up on the farm need a legitimate opportunity to shine.
If it means deviating from the established ways of the head coach and the GM, so be it.
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