At a time when fans and the media have been baffled by Darryl Sutter’s late season lineups, the coach doubled down Tuesday with his most pointed criticism yet of his two most frequent scratches.
“I think (Dube) and Valimaki are the identical players in terms of where they’re at - their minutes don’t go up unless they become better players,” said Sutter who scratched Valimaki once again for Tuesday’s meaningless 4-2 loss.
“If they become better players this team becomes better. There’s a little bit of entitlement that went on here and that impacts your team in a negative way for sure. You don’t play guys more to help them get better. They have to help themselves get better based on their training, based on their preparation, based on their compete level, not just the skills that they were drafted on.”
Sutter has scratched Dube a handful of times since taking over ten weeks ago, using the second-round pick almost exclusively as a fourth liner when he is in the lineup.
“I sat him out games just based on his inconsistency in terms of when the other team has the puck,” said Sutter, whose harshest assessments have always been aimed at young players.
“If you look at the last game (Sunday) we played, Dillon played on a line with Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane against Brock Boeser. One guy had ten shots, (Boeser) and the other guy had two penalties. Lots of growing up to do.”
Dube was recently selected to play for Team Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Championship where the captain of Canada’s gold-medal-winning junior team in 2018 hopes to turn his fortunes.
Asked how he felt his season was going, Dube was curt.
“I haven’t been very good,” said Dube, 22, who had 10 goals and 20 points this year.
It’s tougher to turn things around while in the press box, which is where Valimaki watched Tuesday’s afternoon game in Vancouver alongside other prospects like Glenn Gawdin, Oliver Kylington and Matthew Phillips.
No, you can’t play all the prospects, but several veterans in the lineup the last three games shouldn’t have played given the opportunity for the Flames to evaluate top youngsters.
Sutter, who puzzled many by starting Jacob Markstrom in the first two of the team’s last four exhibition-like games against Vancouver, has repeatedly bristled when questioned about the refusing to take more looks at prospects of late.
“I’m just trying to respond to everybody you want in the lineup,” he said sarcastically to one reporter who asked about lineups.
“The biggest problem we have is we have a roster. We can’t just put a guy in the roster – we have to take guys off and put one on. Quite honest, we’ve played the prospects. I don’t know who else anybody wants to see. Quite honest we’ve tried to be very respectful of who is deserving of playing a game.”
That’s got to be hard for Phillips to hear after being a good soldier for three years in the AHL where the diminutive Calgary-born all-star tied for the Heat’s scoring lead this season.
Surely at a time when the franchise is looking for any sort of feel-good stories to end the season, he deserves a shot to play in at least one NHL game.
It’s the right thing to do.
“Sure I’d like to see all those guys get a game that have been here a while,” said Sutter, softening his tone while suggesting - incorrectly - that perhaps roster barriers prevented him from playing previously.
“There are guys hurt that we left at home I would have liked to look at for sure.”
He’s referring to former Alberta Golden Bears star Luke Philp, who suffered an injury this week.
Sutter finally gave Louis Domingue his first start of the year on Tuesday as a reward for practicing hard this year as the team’s third stringer while going 14 months between NHL games.
“Absolutely, 100 per cent,” said Sutter of his rationale.
“He stopped a lot of pucks this year and deserved to get in. You’re giving some players opportunities that they normally wouldn’t get to raise their profile a little bit. That’s guys who play here all year too. What you’re still looking for are how they prepare and how they perform. There’s guys who have been here all year who are still trying to figure out what they have to do in terms of helping the team win games.”
Youngsters Connor Mackey and Adam Ruzicka both got in their second-straight games with the former getting in a fight on consecutive nights and the latter picking up his first NHL point.
Sutter said that for the third game in a row, he expects three or four more roster changes as the club mercifully ends its season on Wednesday afternoon against the Canucks.
We’ll see what opportunities, and criticisms, lie ahead.