We are going to find out very quickly what this Calgary Flames team is or isn’t made of.
When Darryl Sutter was re-introduced to the Calgary media 11 years after he was let go as GM of the team and 15 years after the last time he served as head coach, he mentioned coming back to deal with “unfinished business.”
But as the Flames try to find consistency and an identity, it’s fair to wonder why Sutter? It’s been four years since he was behind an NHL bench and seven years since he won a playoff round. The game has changed wildly since he last found success and the amount of coaches left who we’d label an “old school taskmaster” are dwindling.
Will his message get across to this group and will his style be effective in a more offensive league — a more wild and crazy division and situation.
“There’s fundamentals that never change in terms of taking care of your own end and shot volume, puck possession, and things like that. When I got to LA we used the analytic part of it very effectively.” Sutter said Friday. “Tampa quietly changed their style of game by bringing in certain types of players, having a better defence, getting star players to buy in. They went from a contender to winning championships.”
Sutter has never missed the playoffs in his first full season with a team, but when he last joined the Flames partway through 2002-03, his .511 points percentage wasn’t enough of a turnaround to reach the post-season. They did make it to the Stanley Cup Final the next season though.
Sutter has coached parts of 18 seasons in the NHL and while most of those (11) came in the pre-cap era, his greatest success came on this side of history.
Now, with a three-year contract, he’s tasked with bringing an 11-11-2 Flames team that sits two points out of a playoff spot back to prominence and set them up for playoff success. His way will be different than Geoff Ward’s and how the players respond is now the key to their season and future.
Will Sutter be the right hire this time? Here’s a look back at each of his previous four stops as a head coach in the NHL.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 1992-1995
Sutter’s first job on an NHL bench was as an associate with the Hawks under Mike Keenan. He was with them on their run to the 1992 Stanley Cup Final in that capacity and was promoted to the head coaching position that same off-season when Keenan was asked to focus on GM duties. Keenan didn’t last two months into the next season until he was dismissed, but Sutter coached in Chicago for three years.
Jeremy Roenick was the team’s early-20s rising star, but it was mostly an experienced core with Chris Chelios, Steve Larmer, Steve Smith, and brother Brent the next-highest scorers after Roenick. Sutter didn’t miss the playoffs with these teams, but he couldn’t get them back to the final again.
In his first year with the Hawks, Sutter did squeeze regular-season improvement. The Hawks went from an 87-point team to a 106-point team and first place in the Norris Division. But in a Round 1 rematch with the Blues, Chicago was swept.
In his second season at the helm, the Hawks stepped back to an 87-point team in the newly formed Central Division and were ousted in the first round by the Maple Leafs in six games.
The Hawks had a slightly better pace in the 48-game 1994-95 season and finished third in the Central. This time, Sutter led them to his first couple of series wins, a seven-gamer over the Leafs and a sweep of the Canucks. In the conference final, they lost to an emerging modern dynasty in the Detroit Red Wings, who then were swept in the Cup final.
After that playoff run Sutter stepped aside from coaching to be with his family back at the Viking, Alta. farm.
While Sutter is returning to the Flames in 2021 four years after last working an NHL bench, it’s not the first time he’s taken a multi-year break. After leaving the Hawks he took two years off before returning to…
SAN JOSE SHARKS: 1997-2002
Sutter was Patrick Marleau’s first NHL head coach in 1997 after he was chosen second overall. These Sharks were still relatively new, just seven years into their existence, with a couple playoff upsets already pulled off.
But it had been two seasons since San Jose qualified for the post-season when Sutter was hired. Here you had a young Owen Nolan and Jeff Friesen leading the offence, but also with a mix of veterans.
San Jose wasn’t great in Year 1 under Sutter, but did see a 16-point improvement and reached the playoffs as the eighth seed, where they lost in Round 1 to the Dallas Stars. The Sharks saw a regular-season points increase every year under Sutter, as some young players developed and the likes of Teemu Selanne, Vincent Damphousse, Brad Stuart and Evgeni Nabokov were added.
Sutter’s Sharks got past the first round twice, though never reached a conference final. His best playoff run was in his last season, when San Jose reached the second round and lost a 1-0 decision in Game 7 to Colorado.
San Jose started slow the next season and Sutter was fired in December.
It didn’t take long to find his next job…
CALGARY FLAMES: 2002-2006
Before December of 2002 was out, Sutter landed his next head coaching gig with Calgary.
The Flames had a slow start of their own and needed a new voice. Sutter put up a better record after taking over, but Calgary still missed the post-season by a wide margin.
In Year 2 of Sutter, Jarome Iginla drove the offence of this gritty and grizzled roster, with a dash of quickness in the mix. They added excellent goaltending, too, when the Flames traded with Sutter’s former team to get Miikka Kiprusoff.
This season would also mark the last before the 2004-05 lockout and a complete overhaul of the game. This was the last season of the Dead Puck Era and these Flames were well-built for the playoff style of that time. They finished sixth in the West, but got through Vancouver in seven, top-seed Detroit in six and even beat the Sharks one season after they fired Sutter.
The Lightning knocked off the Flames in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final, which of course leaves a haunting memory of Martin Gelinas’ “no goal.”
When the Flames and Sutter returned from the 2004-05 lockout the whole landscape was different, but Calgary still thrived and had an exciting new rookie in Dion Phaneuf. They finished atop the Northwest Division with 103 points, but were upset in Round 1 by Anaheim.
Sutter stepped down as head coach after that season to focus on GM duties, a role he remained in until 2010.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: 2011-17
The situation Sutter first walked into with the Kings is in some ways similar to the one he now faces in Calgary again.
The Kings had been rebuilding for some time before Sutter arrived in 2011 and GM Dean Lombardi was taking plenty of heat. They had been eliminated in the first round of back-to-back playoffs and then started 2011-12 slowly. Sutter was hired 33 games into that season as Lombardi’s potential last hire — if it went wrong, the GM could have been next.
But the Kings became a quick powerhouse. They didn’t score much, but defended extremely well, had solid netminding, and controlled shots better than almost anyone. They qualified for the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, but had gone 25–13–11 after Sutter became head coach and subsequently dominated their way to a Stanley Cup, losing just four times in the post-season.
“Neither one was in a playoff spot and we fought like hell to make it (in Los Angeles),” Sutter said about comparing that start with the Kings to what’s ahead in Calgary. “There’s a lot of similarities to start with top players. That team was probably more veteran at the time, but at the same time we had to get young players in the right frame of mind and they were star players and still are. To think about what it takes to win, and to prepare and take care of yourself.
“When I went to LA you had 40-something games left so you had longer,” Sutter continued. “There was more of a process. We have to try and speed that up as much as we can.”
Throughout Sutter’s time in Los Angeles the Kings were Corsi darlings. Say what you will about analytics vs. old school and where the perception is of Sutter along those lines, but by underlying measures this team was a statistical juggernaut before it was cool. Los Angeles made three straight conference finals and won two Stanley Cups with Sutter, but eventually the well ran dry.
Even in Sutter’s last season with the Kings, when they missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, they still led the league in Corsi For percentage and were the best defensive team in the league, but the goals didn’t come. Injuries, roster attrition and maybe some regression bit the Kings, but Sutter guided them through peak years after taking over at a tumultuous time.
Flames fans hope a similar route will be followed here.