I've been waiting for Ken King or the ownership group of the Calgary Flames to come out and publicly back Darryl Sutter ever since the season ended.
If you are one of the folks who, for some reason or another, think that Darryl Sutter should have been on the chopping block for what happened this season, I urge you to give your head a shake.
I am a staunch Sutter supporter. If you've read any of my other blogs you would know that. I don't hide it. I've got many reasons for my loyalty towards Darryl, which I will address in this blog among my analysis of his job as Flames GM.
Today, in the Calgary Sun, Vicki Hall has written a piece, following an interview with Ken King, that shows me the Calgary Flames are just as committed to Sutter as I am.
Let me start by saying this. I've been a Calgary Flames follower as far back as my memories take me. The Stanley Cup championship of 1989 is a great memory of mine. The following years still brought great hockey, that is, until about 1997.
A lot of the current Calgary Flame fan base jumped back on board the wagon right around the time Peter Maher let out his first "Yeah Baby!" of the 2003-2004 season; and that was when they Flames clinched their first playoff birth in 7 seasons and went on their remarkable run. For the first round against the Canucks, you could buy playoff tickets on Ticketmaster quite easily; I even got seats on Ticketmaster for game 6 of the SECOND ROUND vs. Detroit! (Also my favorite Flames moment of all time). It wasn't until the third round that fandom hit a fever-pitch and the city of Calgary went literally crazy. This is just how fan bases work.
Of these "new" fans, how many actually remember the dark years. The 7 seasons of futility. The year the Flames were in first in the West at Christmas but managed to miss the playoffs altogether? Remember when our high scorer was Cory Stillman with about 60 points? Remember the tandem of Rick Tabarracci and Ken Wregget? Most people in Calgary really, truly, don't think about that. If that were to happen again for a couple seasons, the 'dome would empty out again or everyone would be trying to sell their season tickets.
Thankfully, we don't have to worry about that because we have a management group that is among the elite of the NHL.
When Sutter was hired as coach, the team instantly started playing better. When he became GM that off-season, the whole mantra of the Flames changed, and losing was no longer an option.
The team in 03-04 overachieved because of the system, and the goalie, that Sutter put in place. In 05-06 the team was playing their best hockey since the early 90s. Defense was the key and Miikka Kiprusoff was literally god. Unfortunately, the team quit in game 7 against Anaheim that year. That was still the worst game I've ever seen them play at home. Had they won, Alberta's dream would have came true with a second-round matchup with the Oilers. Instead, the whole mood of the team seemed to change and we've been struggling to recover ever since.
Sutter stepped down as coach following that season saying the team needed an upgrade at that position. It also allowed him to focus on building our farm system which was in desperate need of some good young bodies.
Which brings me to where we are today. After our fourth straight first-round exit, the fans want answers. Well, you got it already in the form of a house-clean of the bench staff. And while it was absolutely necessary for Mike Keenan to be fired, as echoed by Sutter in his news conference when he said even a first-round win wouldn't have saved Keenan's job; we still have to look at the performance of the GM.
To win in the post-lockout NHL you need a number of things.
1. Two scoring lines.
2. A solid checking line.
3. Combination of shut-down and puck-moving defense.
4. Contributers still on entry-level contracts (or equivalent deals).
5. Solid goaltending.
6. Capable farm system.
7. Good leadership (captain).
8. Franchise Centre, Defenseman, Goalie
9. Good special teams.
10. Good coaching.
Let's break it down.
1. Check. With the addition of Olli Jokinen the Flames have two excellent scoring lines. Allowing Daymond Langkow to be a 2nd line, two-way centre. Rene Bourque really solidified the second line.
2. Check. Craig Conroy has always been a defense-first guy. Now he really can be. The addition of Curtis Glencross solidified this line; how great of a signing was this? But, really, shouldn't we just be thanking Kevin Lowe for letting him go?
3. In progress. Shut-down D, check. Puck-moving D... well, certainly Giordano fits the mold but the Dion Phaneuf situation keeps this from being a rock solid Check. John Negrin fits the bill as a solid puck-moving prospect.
4. Check. Eric Nystrom, Dustin Boyd, Marc Giordano, Curtis Glencross and maybe you even include Rene Bourque in this equation.
5. Check. Kiprusoff is still a world-class goalie. With some tweaks to the defensive-zone coverage this season I expect his numbers to be back up at the top of the league. However, a backup would still be nice.
6. Check. We saw first hand some of the prospects that are nearly ready for NHL duty. Strength down the middle (Backlund, Nemisz), on the back-end (Pelech, Negrin) and in goal (Irving, Keetley).
7. Check. The current front-runner for Team Canada's captaincy in 2010. This is a no-brainer. Jarome Iginla is a premiere player, captain and leader in the NHL.
8. Check. Finally. I will address this further in regards to Olli Jokinen below. FYI, the d-man is not Phaneuf.
9. In progress. The penalty kill could use some tweaks, but the bodies are there. The power-play has been doing the same thing since 03-04 and is brutal. Will be addressed by the new coaching staff I'm sure.
10. In progress. Sutter's biggest mistake as GM of the Flames so far was the hiring of Mike Keenan. Although I don't believe it sent us backword, it certainly provided no movement forward. Safe to say this off-season is absolutely key for the hiring of the coaching staff alone.
I urge you to go through the other NHL teams and see who can fill all of these necessities. You won't find many.
The biggest concern for this franchise ever since Sutter took over has been their ability to go out and get a number 1 centre. We all know that. They talk about it every season, then every draft and then every trade deadline. This year, Sutter was given the opportunity to acquire that centre, in Olli Jokinen, for a fraction of what was being asked for him last season. So he did it. And although I'm not a huge Jokinen fan, he proved in spurts that he will likely be exactly what we've been looking for all these years. And had the Flames not made the deal, then bowed out in the first round, everyone would be criticizing Sutter for not making that move. It became clear that Matthew Lombardi was not capable of being a top-line centre on a contending team.
Which brings me to the salary cap issue. It ties in with the previous paragraph as this was a move that Sutter had to make. As was the Leopold deal. And strangely enough, Sutter admitted to having ANOTHER deal at the deadline that fell through. That would have likely put us even closer to the cap! The catastrophic amount of injuries and the crazy CBA rule that wouldn't allow the Flames to put Robyn Regehr on injured reserve is what put Darryl in the tight salary cap space that we were in. There are a number of teams in the league, that, having suffered the same bout of injuries at the same time frame would have had to field a short roster. Should they all be fired because there's a small chance it COULD happen to them too? I don't think so. If Sutter had put this team into this position without acquiring a number 1 centre, my thoughts may be different... but he did get that guy and it's going to make a world of difference for this season.
Do I have to point out the fact the Flames are 1 of 5 teams to make the playoffs in each of the last 4 seasons? How about the fact that the waiting list for season tickets is several years long? Or that the team is making money every single year? I have a feeling ownership may be happy with this...
Fire Darryl Sutter? I don't think so.
If you still think he's the problem... well, the only solution I have for you other than absorbing the facts I just stated is this....
Get used to it. Because he's not going anywhere. And don't count out more of his brothers, sons and nephews and whatever other family he's got, because let's face it; The Sutter's are what hockey's all about, and more specifically, what Alberta hockey is about... south of Red Deer that is.