CALGARY - Darryl Sutter isn’t ready to weigh in on whether his team will be better than last year, but the Jolly Rancher believes the team added two important ingredients this summer:
“I think we’re just a more mature team,” said Sutter from his ranch in Viking, Alta., where he took a 20-minute break from helping farmhands to join the Eric Francis Show Monday.
“By bringing in (Nazem) Kadri and the two boys from Florida, those boys are coming off big years on teams that were very effective. I’d say that, right there, is of value for us for sure.
“I think our team, at the end of the day, has been looking for leadership, not just last year but the last few years, and Brad bringing in these guys this summer will really help us in that area.”
Sutter had plenty to say about more than just leadership and maturity, weighing in on everything from the vacant captaincy, how much harder goals will be to come by, the debate on line combinations, and whether he has all the ingredients to be a contender, to the message he’s been sending to his players since last year’s abrupt playoff exit.
He also gave credence to the widespread belief Matthew Tkachuk would likely have been named captain if he had more term on his contract.
And while fans and the media have understandably been focused on the swapping out of Johnny Gaudreau, Tkachuk and Sean Monahan for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri, he believes the team’s progress will largely be determined by the supporting cast.
“Those guys in that 23 to 28-year-old age bracket – and we had a lot of them - all showed progress last year,” said Sutter, as part of the Q & A transcribed below.
“For this team to get better it’s not the new guys coming in, it’s those guys who have to get better.”
Sportsnet: Before we ask for your thoughts, what does your son, Chris, think of all the moves?
Darryl Sutter: Chris is excited. Lots of new players just like last year. He’s done all the background on everybody and now he’s working on his lines, and pairs and power plays.
SN: How would you describe the off-season you just had.
DS: We lost some really good players and got some really good players. As great a regular season as we had, I think there were some areas in the playoff that showed up where we were probably not as good as the other team. I think we filled some of those positions.
Brad has done a heck of a job putting the pieces back together again.
SN: Your thoughts on Nazem Kadri, who everyone seems to think is a Darryl Sutter-type player.
DS: He’s a centreman. Bottom line is we were not good enough at centre ice – it showed up in the playoffs.
The top teams in this division are three centremen deep and it really exposed us, especially with Sean being hurt and not being able to play.
You say he’s a Darryl Sutter type player. He’s a winner. He finished, what, tenth in scoring last year. He plays in a lot of situations and still has a little bit of old school in him. One thing him and I talked about is that once you’ve won you just want to win again.
I think he’s a guy that understands what it takes to win. I think our team, at the end of the day, has been looking for leadership not just last year but the last few years, and Brad bringing in these guys this summer will really help us in that area.
SN: Has your mindset changed on naming a captain this year, or are you content to continue without a captain in the near term?
DS: I don’t think my mind has changed. You go back to last year, and while there were up and comers, anybody who was a consideration for it wasn’t under contract. So, really, it wouldn’t make much sense to be naming a captain when he’s only going to be here a year or two.
It’s still a growth part of this team.
I don’t think the captain thing is something I thought a lot about. I think I learned a lot about the players last year and we’ll just go from there.
SN: Do significant off-season changes like these alter your approach or style of play?
DS: I think you have to get to know the new players, how they fit and where they play.
I think that’s the big challenge for us in training camp is seeing where those guys play. Who is Weegar’s partner? Is Huberdeau a Kadri guy or is he a Lindholm guy? Those things all come into it. Is there a young player who is going to come in and play an NHL game for us.
In some ways, it’s like last year, when everyone was talking at this time about the Gio (Mark Giordano) thing. And who was going to be the captain?
Well, it doesn’t affect us as much as everybody thought.
I think our team matured by making the playoffs and understanding what it takes to win a series.
Those guys in that 23-28 age bracket – and we had a lot of them - all showed progress last year.
For this team to get better it’s not the new guys coming in, it’s those guys who have to get better.
We know the guys coming in are good players and good people, so we’ve already got that going for us.
SN: As talented as Huberdeau is, some people wonder about the two-way game your system demands. Is this something you’re going to have to work on with him?
DS: I’m sure, as with every player, guys who haven’t won championships have to learn that. That’s the same thing that was talked about here in Calgary for five years, all these guys the team was built around, all you ever heard about was ‘they don’t play in their own end,’ or ‘they don’t play this style.’
They learned how to play it, and when you talk to Huberdeau about all those things, the kid has got his head and his heart in the right place. He’ll be fine. He’s a big, strong guy and he has incredible hands.
We have enough good players to surround him with, and he’s going to make our guys better players.
I’m not worried about that defensive part at all with him.
SN: What does MacKenzie Weegar bring?
DS: First and foremost, he’s coming off a good season where he had a statement year for him. It’s taken him a while in the NHL. He’s a guy who can fit in just about anywhere with your defence. He can play both sides, which is really important.
He became an efficient penalty killer. I think he can be a good power play guy.
I think it’s really good competition.
He’s actually a very similar player to Ras (Rasmus Andersson).
To get another player like that is great for our defence.
In the end, in order to win a championship you have to make the playoffs over and over and over, and guys have to go through good and bad and be very self-motivated and self-critiquing.
This player coming in is going to add top-four competition, which there wasn’t last year at this time.
I think that’s critical.
Noah (Hanifin), Ras, Tanny (Chris Tanev) and then it’s going to play out to see who plays where.
SN: Given your old-school desire to build teams up the middle, do you now believe that with these additions you have all the pieces needed to be a contender?
DS: Well, all the top teams have a star defenceman. Just go through the last seven or eight Stanley Cup teams and there’s a stud defenceman that can play half the game and all situations. I think we’re a more balanced type of defence than those teams.
That’s the growth for those young guys to make those steps. I think with Ras, MacKenzie coming in and (Oliver) Kylington, those guys all have to take another big step in their development.
And I’m not old school (in wanting to build up the middle.) That is how you win. Pretty clear. Those are your most important players: your goalie, your four defencemen and your four or five centremen.
SN: With 11 players last year with career seasons statistically, talk about the challenge of them needing to be even better this year.
DS: I think the career years were based on goals and points probably, they were part of the best season they’ve had as individuals or as a team in a collective way.
I think once they understood how much better they could be if you have the puck more than the other team it resulted in more production.
You’re probably talking about Mang (Andrew Mangiapane), or Dillon (Dube), or Lindy. Those guys had career years but they’re just kids. They’re going to improve in the maturity of the game.
Guys had career years but what gets overlooked for a lot of them is that I think playoffs were a big eye opener. They had a lot of struggles in the playoffs, so that’s the maturity part, that’s just experience and getting a year older.
SN: With the loss of Gaudreau and Tkachuk are goals going to be harder to come by this season?
DS: No question. We lost 80-some goals on left wing and right wing. Are you going to get 80-goals back? We were (sixth) in the league in goals for, but we still had enough of a margin between goals for and against that we were still going to have 100 points. So, we’re still going to have that same mindset, but at the same time the most important part last year wasn’t that we scored more goals. What was most important was that those guys who scored more goals were more efficient, 200-foot players.
SN: Are you a better hockey team than you were last year.
DS: We’ll find out. Last year I give our team lots of credit because they had zero respect coming out of the gate so to do what we did in the regular season and win a round and play the way we did, that’s a very good season.
Are we a better team? I really don’t know.
We’ll be a different type of team, but I am excited about our team. I’m excited that our players are excited.
SN: What does your team have now that you didn’t have as much before.
DS: I think we’re just a more mature team. By bringing in Kadri and the two boys from Florida, those boys are coming off big years on teams that were very effective. I’d say that, right there, is of value for us for sure.
SN: Do you envision moving Andrew Mangiapane to the right wing like you did with Tkachuk last season?
DS: We’ve just got to see. I’m not really sure. Mang is going to play, I’m going to bet, either with Kadri or Lindholm. We’ve got to let training camp play that one out.
Who’s the best fit for Kadri is more important than where Mangiapane plays.
SN: Flames fans have already been busy scribbling down their line combinations. Can we assume you have too?
DS: No, I really haven’t. Huberdeau led the NHL in assists. That tells you there what he’s made of.
What are the best fits for him is important.
I think training camp will tell us a lot and we’ll just let it go.
One thing about most of our guys is they can play both sides up front, so we’ll let it play out.
We’re looking for Dillon to take another step, and Mang to take another step. Blake (Coleman) with a full year, where’s he going to play?
You can bounce it all around, and it’s interesting to do it, but we’ll see what camp brings us.
SN: What was your message to the players at the end of last year and throughout the summer?
DS: Get 10% better. They were one of the poorest-trained teams in the league coming into last season. It was the biggest surprise I’d ever seen was when I came halfway through the year was the team’s conditioning part, so they became a slow team because of that. So, they really worked hard at it last summer and now they’re working hard at it again, and we think there’s still improvement there. And with that improvement then skillsets become more noticeable.
Those kids that had career years last year just wasn’t by accident or because of philosophy. It’s because they trained a lot different, trained a lot harder to be faster players.
They played the right way and were rewarded for it.
SN: What are your expectations for this group?
DS: Hard work, honesty and making the playoffs.
The division is going to be tough. I think Edmonton and LA are really coming now, so there’s three spots that aren’t wild card spots and you want to be one of them. That was our goal last year and this year again.