If Craig Conroy hadn’t seen it before, he might not have believed it was possible.
Just as Darryl Sutter did almost two decades earlier when he transformed Conroy’s struggling Calgary club into a Stanley Cup finalist, the Jolly Rancher has reinvented the Flames once again.
Contrary to popular belief heading into the season, this team is good.
As in, 7-1-3 good.
And the man chiefly responsible for bringing the best out of a previously beleaguered bunch is indeed Sutter.
“When I played it out in my mind, this is kind of what I was hoping for – this is what you think Darryl can do,” said Conroy, the Flames centre-turned assistant GM when asked how much credit Sutter deserves for the team’s shocking start.
“I think a lot of this has to do with Darryl. I know it’s early, but this is a Darryl Sutter hockey team.”
The NHL's fourth-place team is days away from a seven-game road trip that will have plenty of eastern observers wondering how any of this is possible from a playoff-less team that was unable to replace its captain in the summer.
There are plenty of explanations for how the team has transformed, but no one has played a bigger role than Sutter.
The players have bought into his defence-first, detail-oriented system, which puts a premium on quick transitions and tenacious forechecking.
“That’s one thing about Darryl, he squeezes every ounce out of whatever you can give out of you, and wants a little bit more,” said Conroy, who watched his rag-tag bunch rally around Sutter to get to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, against all odds.
“He’s had time with them and it just seems like everything has kind of jelled. He knows the line combinations he wants and what he wants to do. The players are playing great for him and the goaltender is playing great. He puts you in an uncomfortable spot where you’re a little tense, but you want to do well for him.”
And it’s the way they’ve done it that has surprised many.
Although several off-season acquisitions like Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson suggested Sutter hoped to employ the bruising style that led the LA Kings to two Stanley Cups, the reality is the Flames' calling card is a work ethic and cohesiveness that has them playing as a five-man unit.
Everyone has bought in, which has been made easier by a coach who clearly defines roles and has the depth to slot players according to their ability.
He plucked Sean Monahan from his longtime perch on the top line and has given him a checking role in the bottom-six.
He empowered once-forgotten defenceman Oliver Kylington through training camp and has been rewarded with a player who is thriving in a top-four that had a gaping hole after Mark Giordano was plucked by Seattle.
His blue line-by-committee approach has the team fourth in goals against.
“Darryl and his staff have done a hell of a job,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving. “He’s a top coach. He’s a big part of our early season success.
“Maybe we were the only guys who thought it – I know everyone wanted to bury everybody – but we’ve got good players. We’ve got a good coach who brings really good structure, and holds people accountable, and puts people in the right situation.”
True to the form Sutter has exhibited throughout the team’s 10-game point streak, Treliving is quick to bring the discussion back to earth.
“Now, let’s just pump the brakes – we’ve played 11 games,” he said. “We’ve had a decent start, but we don’t put a whole lot of stock in what we did yesterday. Sounds cliché, but we worry about the next day.”
That’s the mentality on display when Sutter is even more ornery following wins than he is losses.
His goal seems to be to remind players that until they lift a Stanley Cup, they haven’t accomplished a lick.
“That’s what’s good about Darryl, he keeps up honest and he keeps us on point,” said Rasmus Andersson, whose club is forever guarding against the type of lengthy slumps that have plagued them the last handful of years. “There is more you can give in every single game. You never really play the perfect game.”
Boy, have they been close a few times this year, shutting out the opposition in four of their last nine outings, outscoring opponents 36-14 in that stretch.
Gone are the slow starts this team was known for.
On the odd nights they haven’t scored first there is a belief that, as long as they stick to the system, they are capable of coming back -- unlike last season.
It’s a highly motivated group, whose core has taken a beating in the court of public opinion following years of playoff failures, punctuated by last season’s fifth-place finish in the Canadian division. After taking the second half of last season to adjust to Sutter’s new approach, they knew what to expect from him this year and did their part to be ready for it.
“I think the guys were pissed off about last year,” said Conroy, whose coach made it known every player’s fitness level had to be better. “When they went home last summer there were a lot of sour, disappointed people. Everybody went home with a mission. It wasn’t good enough.
“You could tell coming into camp, and looking at guys coming in in shape, what they were doing. You’re thinking everyone was embarrassed and pissed off about not making it. Their mental attitude, plus what Darryl brings, is just a nice combination.”
So is having Jacob Markstrom playing like the Six Million Dollar Man he was paid to be two summers ago.
“The way Marky started reminds me of Kipper (Miikka Kiprusoff) in that when we make a mistake he makes a big save and gets us going and then we win the game,” added Conroy. “It’s a combination: Darryl has done a ton and the players have also done a ton. And they’re buying into what he’s saying. I think it’s just a good mix.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing this season has been just how entertaining the Flames have been.
This isn’t just a team sitting back in the neutral zone trap, blocking shots and trying to win games 1-0. They’re an opportunistic group of forechecking freaks who pressure teams all over the ice, finish checks, and have translated that into far more scoring chances than anyone thought possible.
The team currently sits fourth in the league with 40 goals.
A big part of that is spearheaded by the top line Sutter assembled, which has Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk putting on passing displays that have made them one of the league’s most dangerous trios.
“I just think Darryl expects a lot out of every player - if you’re not playing, if you’re not performing, he’s going to let you know,” said Gaudreau, who has also bought in to being far more impactful on the defensive side of the puck. “Whether we win or lose, he holds guys accountable. I think that’s something we’ve been missing in the past here over the past six or seven years. We haven’t had a coach like this to make sure guys show up each night.”
The only regulation-loss came opening night against a juggernaut Oilers squad in Edmonton, where the Flames had every reason to be proud of their effort.
At the conclusion of last season it was Milan Lucic who suggested what the Flames were missing was between the ears.
Sutter has filled that space with a plan and a mindset that has the Flames believing something few others did: this team could actually be a contender.