Pondering Darryl Sutter’s complicated legacy with the Calgary Flames
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Ryan Pike6 months ago
On Mar. 4, 2021, Darryl Sutter returned to coach the Calgary Flames amidst great fanfare and jubilation. On May 1, 2023, just shy of 14 months later, Sutter was relieved of his coaching duties to the relief of many around the team. In-between those announcements, the Flames captured a Pacific Division crown and Sutter won the Jack Adams Award.
Needless to say, Sutter’s return to the Flames – and his entire tenure with the club – wasn’t boring. As the dust settles on his time with the Flames, let’s ponder his complicated legacy.
Sutter was hired by the Flames as head coach on Dec. 28, 2002, ending a nearly month-long interim period for Al MacNeil following the firing of Greg Gilbert. On Apr. 11, 2003, he became general manager after the departure of Craig Button. Sutter gave up his coaching duties following the 2005-06 season and resigned as GM on Dec. 28, 2010.
Between his two stints with the Flames, Sutter was with the Flames for a decade. For context, a fifth of the seasons in Flames franchise history had Sutter as GM, coach, or both. During his tenure, Sutter coached 120 players over the course of six seasons. His 404 regular season games and 210 victories behind the bench are the most in Flames history. Only Hockey Hall of Famer “Badger” Bob Johnson had more playoff games or wins with the Flames than Sutter.
On the aggregate, Sutter was a fantastic coach. He was behind the bench for just four full seasons: 2003-04 (advanced to Stanley Cup Final), 2005-06 (won Northwest Division), 2021-22 (won Pacific Division) and 2022-23.
As GM, Sutter oversaw the drafting of 59 players. Among them, Dion Phaneuf surpassed 1,000 NHL games, while Mikael Backlund (908) and TJ Brodie (830) are both getting close to that level. But when you remove those three players, of the remaining 56 draft selections, only four played more than 300 NHL games: Brandon Prust (486), Lance Bouma (357), Adam Pardy (342) and Micheal Ferland (335). Sutter’s tendency was to draft big, burly young gentlemen and, as the NHL moved more and more towards speed and skill, the players he selected increasingly struggled to reach (or stay in) the NHL.
(He notably drafted, and later traded away, his oldest son, Brett.)
Over Sutter’s decade with the Flames, things either really worked well or they really did not.
Every button Sutter pushed and roster tweak he made in 2003-04 worked. He yoinked Miikka Kiprusoff away from San Jose early in the season. He added the right role players. He had a team that was admittedly light on high-end offensive skill playing an unyielding, demanding style, and they came within a goal of winning it all that spring.
Similarly, every button he pushed during 2021-22 worked well, too. Seemingly the entire team had breakout seasons, and several of them – Jacob Markstrom, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau most prominently – contended for NHL awards. The 2021-22 Flames were equal parts good and lucky.
But Sutter tended to be slow to adjust. When the NHL’s style of play changed, radically, after the 2004-05 lockout, Sutter seemingly kept trying to recreate the 2004 mojo to no avail. Similarly, when the 2022-23 Flames weren’t as good or as lucky as the 2021-22 version, Sutter couldn’t figure out the tweaks behind the bench to stem the tide.
After being in hockey for most of his life, Sutter could be counted on for two things: really engaging anecdotes about hockey history, and an acerbic, occasionally very combative, wit. He frequently pushed back against perceived media narratives, and regularly engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with media members when he didn’t appreciate lines of questioning. He could be counted on for entertaining media sessions, but on occasionally his quips would veer past the line of good taste (“He was taking a shit,” on a Jonathan Huberdeau absence during a game) or be used to send messages (“What number is he?” after Jakob Pelletier’s NHL debut).
When things were going well for the Flames, Sutter was a commanding, demanding presence who knew what buttons to push to get the desired results. When things weren’t going well, that presence devolved – during both of his tenures – into what’s been termed a “black cloud” around the club. Even though the players were grown men pursuing their life-long dreams to play professional sports, too often during the “black cloud” regime it seemed forbidden for them to attempt to have any fun.
Sutter was part of the Flames for a decade. Sometimes he was a big positive for the club. Sometimes he was a significant negative for the club. For better or for worse, he was never boring. He leaves behind a large, complicated legacy.
What will Darryl Sutter’s legacy be with the Flames? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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