It’s always tough to argue whether or not someone should keep their job. But look at the results on the ice, and it’s a legitimate question. Where does the blame lie for the Flames’ unexpected struggles this season? And don’t kid yourself—these are unexpected troubles. Last season, they were one of the stronger teams in the Western Conference, earning the 5th seed in the playoffs. This season, it increasingly looks like their season will end in early April instead of the middle of May. So it’s only natural to ask the question: Why?
At the beginning of the season, there were some seriously high expectations. By and large, experts, analysts, and bloggers had the Flames and Canucks battling for the Northwest Division championship in their pre-season rankings. With the addition of high-priced defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to an already strong team, the Flames were supposed to take the next step. The Canucks have managed to uphold their end of the bargain, but the Flames have struggled mightily for the vast majority of the season.
The first place to look when a team struggles should always be the players. At the end of the day, players win games and players lose games. So if we are to start any kind of criticism of the team, we must start with the actual guys on the ice. Are they under-performing?
First, the good. Rene Bourque and Mark Giordano have exceeded all rational expectations. Bourque has gone from 3rd line winger to the top line—and has been successful. The organization has rewarded his stellar play with a hefty 6-year, $20 million extension. We’ll be able to judge whether that was a good move in a few years, but for now Bourque is proving that he wants to be a dependable point producer at the NHL level.
Mark Giordano has been as impressive (if not more) than his forward counterpart. In fact, he’s been so good that his emergence among the Flames Top 4 defensemen made Dion Phaneuf expendable (in their eyes). Throw in Miikka Kiprusoff stats that have once again been among the league leaders, and you can see that there ARE some bright spots for this team this season.
Unfortunately, there have been more than a few players who have been wild disappointments. Jay Bouwmeester is getting paid about 1 billion dollars for every goal he scores. Wonder Captain Jarome Iginla is starting to show signs of the inevitable decline that all NHL forwards endure. Ales Kotalik played exactly how he was playing in New York before the Flames acquired him mid-season. Dion Phaneuf was underwhelming when he was in Alberta and the 18 players they got for him from Toronto have been equally underwhelming. But if you remove expectations, every one of those players played to the level at which they play. Plain and simple. They are what they are.
When judging players and determining production, we must establish some expectations. Are we expecting Robyn Regehr to be a 3rd or 4th defenseman or are we expecting him to be $4 million defenseman? Are we expecting Matt Stajan to be a 2nd or 3rd line center or are we expecting him to be a play maker that feeds Jarome Iginla on a nightly basis.
When a team starts to tune out the coach, then it’s reasonable for the man behind the bench to bear the brunt of the criticism. That’s just how it is. There’s a normal cycle that the vast majority of coaches go through at each stop, and sooner or later all coaches wear out their welcome. But there’s no way that Brent Sutter can be held accountable for the severity of the problems in Calgary. Sure, all coaches make questionable moves from time to time—but he’s not the reason that the Flames are praying for the last playoff spot in the West.
The next question we have to ask is this: Are they prepared on a nightly basis? From an X’s and O’s standpoint, he’s been average. He’s not going to remind anyone of Scotty Bowman, but he hasn’t been a noticeable deficiency. From an emotional standpoint, the Flames have not brought the intensity that they’ve needed down the stretch. If anyone has any questions about that, please direct your attention to their recent games against the Islanders and Bruins. But if a team is in the middle of a playoff push and can’t get ready emotionally, it’s not a coaching problem. It’s a character problem.
Even if his message isn’t getting through to the players (which is usually the reason coaches get fired), he hasn’t even been there for an entire season. Last season he helped lead the New Jersey Devils to 106 points and a 1st place finish in their division. It’s not like he woke up one day and forgot how to coach.
The General Manager
So if most of the players are playing how they have for their entire career, and their first-year coach (who has been successful in the past) hasn’t noticeably cost them any games, then where does that leave us? Maybe it’s time to look at how the team was built.
Most people would go straight to the Jay Bouwmeester signing if they wanted to hang GM Darryl Sutter out to dry. But that’s not even close to the worst thing that he’s done in the last 12 months. I’m talking about a player that wasn’t in Calgary before last season’s trade deadline and he’s not in Alberta now. But both his acquisition and departure helped cripple the Flames in separate ways. Let me introduce to you Olli Jokinen.
Last season when Darryl Sutter made the decision that the Flames were going to “go for it,” one of his big moves was to bring the well-travelled Olli Jokinen in to add a much needed scoring punch to the team. In acquiring the alien-looking Finn, he traded away Matthew Lombardi and a 1st round draft pick. Nevermind that Lombardi plays center (a position that they are tragically weak in), or that he was having arguably the best year of his career. They were going for it all and they thought that Jokinen was the missing piece. So they traded away their only other center, effectively having Jokinen fill the void that Lombardi was leaving. In other words, they weren’t adding—they were just hoping for an upgrade. For their efforts, they got to include a valuable 1st round draft pick. But who cares—draft picks are for people who are thinking about the future and the Flames were buying for the “now.”
The only problem was that Olli Jokinen performed the way that he has for the majority of his career—disappointing. He was never a good fit with Iginla, and was not good enough to carry a line on his own. So Darryl Sutter was stuck with a guy that wasn’t producing, wasn’t a good fit, and was making over $5 million. He was obviously desperate to get rid of him because a) he was extremely overpaid and b) he desperately needed SOMEONE to score goals.
To compound his initial mistake, he traded the much maligned Jokinen to the New York Rangers for Christopher Higgins and Ales Kotalik. In Kotalik, Sutter was able to bring in the only player in North America that was more disappointing than Jokinen. Worse yet, he was just as overpaid—but he still has two more years on his horrific contract. When fans are sitting back and wishing that they were on the Glen Sather side of a deal, you know things aren’t going well. At this point, how much do you think Sutter wishes he could just go back and have Matthew Lombardi and his 1st round draft pick back?
Sticking with the forward theme, Darryl Sutter has decided that it would be best to build the team around 89 wingers and ZERO centers. Kotalik and Higgins, from the Jokinen trade, are wingers. Their breakout star (Rene Bourque) is a winger. One of the best pieces from the Dion Phaneuf trade is a winger (Nik Hagman). All of the while they have Matt Stajan and Daymond Langkow at center to match up with the likes of Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf in the Western Conference. It doesn’t take a genius to know that’s not going to work. Then again, GM Sutter was comfortable enough with those match-ups to sign Stajan to a 4-year extension. So maybe it will work? Don’t get me wrong—Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan are good 2nd or 3rd line players. But as it stands today, they make up 2/3 of the Flames top line.
The worst part is that we can talk about all of these questionable decisions before we even address the $33 million defenseman free-agent signing that has yielded 3 goals. Again, making a move like this says that Sutter and Co. truly felt they were one piece away from a deep Stanley Cup run. Jay Bouwmeester has played well while eating up minutes and playing in all situations for his team. But when you’re making $6.7 million per season, you’re held to a higher standard than Cory Sarich. The Flames need more from him. The fans need more from him. Sutter needs more from him.
Is this team just built wrong?
Let’s be real. This team isn’t going to get better next season either. They don’t have draft picks, don’t have a ton of money, and they’ll be another year older next season. So they’re not succeeding today and they’re not building for the future. In today’s NHL, a GM needs to be doing one or the other. If you’re not moving forward, then you’re going backwards.
You don’t give up a 1st round pick unless you truly believe that you’re going to make the playoffs and make noise once you get there. It doesn’t always work out that way, but those are the expectations (See: Toronto Maple Leafs)
As usual, the blame is probably some combination of all of the above. The players could have performed better. The coach could have prepared his team a little better. And the GM could have made better moves. But no one wants to hear that. We live in an age where people want to direct their anger and assign blame to ONE person. With that in mind, there’s no way you can look at the Calgary Flames and not second guess the way this team was built.
Almost 60% of their salary cap was taken up by their defensemen, goaltender, and Jarome Iginla at the beginning of the season. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to have to have some kind of scoring to be successful in this league. Last season, it was clear that Craig Conroy was not going to be able to center the #1 line with Iginla like he was able to do 5 years ago. Who was going to center him? That was the question that needed to be addressed over the offseason if the Flames wanted to compete. It wasn’t, and they aren’t. (And No, Matt Stajan is NOT the answer.)
Fans in Calgary are having a hard enough time trying to survive this season as it is. Unless the Flames have an epic comeback to make the playoffs, Darryl Sutter might want to take some of their survival tips. When blame is dispensed and fingers are pointed, he’ll have a hard time escaping.