On the coaching carousel and why hiring Darryl Sutter isn't a 'safe' move

Ryan Leslie joins Ken Reid to talk about the Flames firing Geoff Ward and bringing in Darryl Sutter.

A common complaint among NHL followers is that “apparently there’s only 35 people on Earth qualified to coach in the NHL” based on what’s viewed as a coaching carousel, where the fired get quickly re-hired and breaking into the ranks seems next to impossible.

The joke isn’t without that shred of truth most jokes hold, as teams mostly make conservative hires to avoid the type of big-swing-and-a-miss that could get a GM kicked out of what’s perceived as the Old Boys Club.

They’ve done the hard work to get in, after all, and if jobs are going to get passed around to those who’ve made it there, one assumes the last thing they’d want to do is rock the boat, get thrown out, and miss their turns.

What gets lost, though, is that being the head coach of an NHL team is a unique job, and a particularly challenging one given the myriad moving parts. On top of X’s and O’s (which, I’ll be frank, are weirdly similar across the board) and practices and in-game decisions, there’s the managing of young ambitious millionaires trying to climb over one another for ice time and opportunity so they can reap the benefits that come with those things.

There’s managing your GM and owner to go along with the expectations of a fanbase. There are media obligations. There are swaths of information in the form of analytics and sport science these days, and staffs have swelled in size to match the players on the ice. The job is not just running a few practices and throwing your best players over the boards in games, it’s involved, and takes measures of knowledge and confidence.

It stands to reason that having been a head coach is just about the best experience a person could have on their resume when applying for the job of being a head coach. I don’t blame GMs for not wanting to be the organization where a person cuts their teeth, and instead hires someone who’s been through it a few times and comes into the role understanding what it all takes. The GM’s career is on the line too, so hiring someone who’s shown themselves to be at least proficient in the role in the past likely feels safer for their own careers than choosing the mystery box.

That said, the Darryl Sutter hiring in Calgary doesn’t exactly feel like the type of safe re-hire that I’m talking about above. The man is four seasons removed from coaching in the NHL, and had since resumed his life as a cattle rancher, running his farm in Viking, Alberta, where he was seemingly content to have moved on from a life in hockey.

(Is this not the most Disney plot the NHL has cooked up since the Mighty Ducks? The uncompromising farmer from the before-times returns to the NHL to turn around a group of stubborn new-age youths? It can only end in glory, with the real twist in the end being what the farmer learns from the kids.)

I say it doesn’t feel like a typical “safe” coach recycling because Sutter isn’t that. He was out of the game, and even before that it felt like he was a bit of a coaching dinosaur. Everything in the NHL (and all sports) is moving in the direction of math and science and computers, and while I’m not suggesting Sutter is some luddite (though some may), I don’t think anyone’s labelling him as being at the forefront of any of those particular movements.

He can be a bit of a curmudgeon, and surely there were “safer” names out there for Brad Treliving to choose, because if this doesn’t go well, it could certainly come back on Treliving.

Claude Julien is a safe hire. Gerard Gallant is a safe hire. Bruce Boudreau is a safe hire. Sutter is one of the few willing to swim against the NHL currents, and so hiring him is too.

When I first heard the Flames re-hired Sutter, I was taken aback. The Flames history of coaching hires is flat-out terrible, and part of that has felt like a lack of due diligence and considering all candidates. My first impression is that this was just more of that, grabbing the closest available name that wasn’t going to cost a fortune. But with some reflection I can see it isn’t that.

More there in a second, but first consider the Flames’ coach hirings since Sutter was last there.

Every guy is either a first-time coach (some would say to keep costs down, as I’ve heard many times on Calgary radio), or a retread on his career’s last legs. None of them -- not one of the seven -- has held another head coaching job in the NHL since their time in Calgary (and given our discussion on coaching carousels, that’s some statement). Only one remains employed in the NHL to this day, though we’ll give Ward the benefit of the doubt as it’s a near-certainty he’ll find another NHL role this off-season.

Jim Playfair
Mike Keenan
Brent Sutter
Bob Hartley
Glen Gulutzan (currently an assistant coach in Edmonton)
Bill Peters
Geoff Ward

This feels different because it’s obviously a hire made for a purpose, and not just a hire of the closest available name they know well enough (who won’t cost a fortune, as someone like Julien surely would).

I believe this management group has developed real questions about the core of the team and its ability to knuckle down and do the right things on a consistent basis. Treliving has recently said this is a team with an “A” game and a “D” game, and nothing in between. Well, motivated and committed players with talent, even on their off-nights, should be able to find a “B” game. That’s where the questions come in.

Moving on from this core would be a big deal. We’re talking about massive trades, a rebuild with a long-term vision, and likely years of transition (and if you’re the ownership, are you sure you’re going to let Treliving be the guy to do that if you think this group he’s built has failed?)

In 2018-19, just two seasons ago, the Flames finished first in the Western Conference, and had the second-best offence in the entire NHL. Shocking to remember, right? They averaged 3.52 goals per game, which is exactly the offensive number that leads the entire NHL right now. Before you torch that core and start over, you better do everything you can to get the most out of some talented players you already have.

So, Sutter feels like just the type of guy who won’t take any guff from any player, and he might also be the type to use the word “guff.” There’ll be no time for half-efforts or excuses. It’ll just be “go out there and work hard or you won’t play.” It’s not that unlike the way John Tortorella coaches, minus the yelling. Do it or don’t, that’s up to you, but we’ll decide what to do with you based on your actions.

This hiring is about the core of players, and finding someone who can squeeze the most juice from it.

So in a world where coaches are recycled, it would be easy to view Sutter in the same light.

But I see a spot filled by someone who’s been known to run a team the way this core needs to be run right now, if for no other reason than to see if they’ve got “it” or not. Sutter’s more of a hired assassin brought in for that one task than he is some safe retread, meant to preserve middling results and jobs. And if he fails, then this core has failed too.

None of it feels safe. Rather, it feels like it’s now up to Johnny Gaudreau and friends to figure it out under Sutter before the clock hits zero on this group.

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