Sutter looking for more out of Flames' young defencemen

Flames' Rasmus Andersson and Mikael Backlund discuss why they're always up for any Battle of Alberta games vs. the Oilers, no matter how tough of a season they've had, as they continue to play for their lives.

The list of reasons why the Calgary Flames will likely miss the playoffs is a lengthy one, which includes everything from a spotty work ethic and scoring touch to a glut of giveaways.

Darryl Sutter added another one earlier this week.

“I think one of the reasons that we are not in a playoff spot is there's three or four young defencemen that have not lived up to expectations this year,” he said.

In a year in which Noah Hanifin took massive strides before his season-ending injury, it seemed clear the Not-So-Jolly Rancher was taking a direct shot at Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki.

The former was tagged as being the team’s go-to power-play quarterback and the latter has been critiqued by Sutter with regularity.

However, on the eve of facing the league’s hottest offensive threat in Edmonton Thursday, Sutter clarified who he was targeting with his latest frank assessment.

“Didn’t apply to Rasmus,” said Sutter of the 24-year-old Swede who no longer plays on the top pairing or directs the top power play as he did at the start of the season.

“It’s got nothing to do with him. He’s been a very good player on this team. He’s for sure been the third-best defenceman on this team since I’ve been here.”

It’s an interesting ranking given how brilliantly Hanifin had played and how beloved ever-reliable warriors Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev are to the coach.

Either way, it leaves the rest of the blue-liners in the crosshairs, outside of veteran Michael Stone, who Sutter suggested has been one of the more stabilizing forces for his young defenders down the stretch.

Fact is, when it comes to the rest, the coach is not wrong – much more was expected from every one of them, including Valimaki, Nikita Nesterov, Oliver Kylington and Connor Mackey.

Sure, Nesterov is 28 and Kylington and Mackey got very few opportunities in the bigs (six games and three games, respectively), but none of them stood out in good ways while in the lineup.

“This summer, when you (media) guys sat in on team meetings, I’m sure you envisioned (Valimaki) pushing to play in the top-four,” said Sutter, accurately.

“I’m sure (Nesterov), when he signed, was expected to make a contribution in the top-six. I’m sure the player you just talked about, Kylington, was going to get every opportunity if he grabbed it to play in a top-six role. I know the team really wanted to look at Connor Mackey, so I’d say those are the young players that are still pushing to see if they’re NHL players.”

Fair enough.

Questions still abound over all four to various degrees, in terms of where — or if — they’ll slot into next year’s hierarchy.

Sutter said the last eight games of the season will help determine just that, but wouldn’t commit to playing a first-year pro like Mackey, as the games are still meaningful with the Flames six points back of fourth-place Montreal.

“With Connor, it’s more that I’ve seen him play twice live, and other than that I don’t really know him,” said the coach, whose group will have its hands full trying to stop Connor McDavid from registering his fifth-straight three-point game.

“I want to make sure that, two things: that he gets into practice and understands the changes we’ve made in terms of style and system, and then see if he can play at this pace. I don’t know if he plays or not, to be honest, but I think that’s important. That’s one of the things you can have with a taxi squad now. If those guys are close to being NHL players, to see if they can practise to become NHL players. That’s what we’re doing with Connor.”

Even with the vote of confidence, Andersson knows he can, and needs to be, much better.

“I always have high expectations of myself,” said Andersson, who sits second amongst Flames defencemen with four goals and 17 points, but is a team-low minus-10.

“As Darryl said, there’s other guys who have to step up (because of Hanifin’s injury) and obviously I’m one of them, but my expectations for myself haven’t changed. I always have high expectations for myself and I can be a lot better than I’ve been.”

Ditto for the entire team.

Loss of an icon

The Flames organization is mourning the passing of one of its original owners, B.J. Seaman, who died Saturday at the age of 97.

Seaman and his brother, Daryl, were two of the six owners who brought the team to Calgary from Atlanta in 1980.

The Saskatchewan native was a successful businessman and philanthropist who was an active part of the community and team ownership until 2010.

Along with his brother and business partner with the Flames, Harley Hotchkiss, Seaman was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. He was also a recipient of the Governor General's Medal.

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