Brent Sutter Takes On Next Challenge As Questions Remain About Time In Calgary

Jesse Bruni May 10, 2012 1

It was quite a couple of weeks for Brent Sutter. First he had to face all the questions from the local media of why the Calgary Flames had failed to secure a playoff spot for the third consecutive season. Then there were the questions of whether or not he would return to the Flames as head coach. Did he want to come back? Was he offered to come back? Would he be happy being part of a rebuild? Was there problems in the dressing room?

First it was announced that he would not be returning to coach the Flames.  Then it was announced a week later that Sutter had a accepted the head coaching position for this years World Championships in Sweden and Finland. Sutter has a strong relationship with general manager Kevin Lowe going back to the Islanders/Oilers battles of the early 1980′s. Sutter has an excellent international track record and was in serious consideration for a head coaching position at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  It is hard to argue the decision by Lowe to bring in Sutter as he has had great success internationally and also has very good relationships with many of the players selected to the team. This will be an excellent opportunity to quickly remove the bitter taste of another difficult season in Calgary.

How Will Sutter Do?

Sutter is a competitive guy, and will definitely want to prove to the hockey world and maybe a few particular NHL general managers that he is still is a top coach and can win at the highest level. There are a couple of other things in Sutter’s favor. For one, many of the players assembled on the roster this tournament will be looked at closely as part of the evaluation process for Sochi in 2014. Hockey Canada has made it clear that participation in international events leading up to the Olympics and how well players play at these events will go a long way in determining the roster for Sochi. So bottom line is players are going to want to play well. Secondly, Sutter’s coaching philosophy and demeanor are much more suitable for a short tournament. He is very intense and demands a lot from his players which can be very exhausting and difficult to take over a full season. Finally, there is a real push by Hockey Canada and the management team to let players and fans understand the importance of World Championships. Results affect the rankings of nations leading into the next Olympics. I believe Sutter will head overseas with the right attitude and a fresh take on the game and his coaching abilities. It also doesn’t hurt that the lineup put together by Canadian management is one of the best in recent memory

Iginla and Sutter

MIke Drew – Calgary Sun

Jarome Iginla again declined an invitation to the World Championships, however this shouldn’t come as a surprise as he has not played in the tournament since he played in the 1997 as a 19 year old. It would have been very interesting if Sutter would have accepted a position if Iginla was on the team. Was there some sort of conflict between the coach and captain of the Calgary Flames over Sutter’s three year tenure in Calgary? We can only speculate as to what happened in the dressing room and behind the scenes but Sutter has made it clear that he struggled getting through to his team and specifically certain players. At the recent press conference to announce Sutter as the new coach for Team Canada, Sutter could not escape the questions regarding the Flames.  When asked whether there were issues inside the room, this is how he responded:

“You know what, you guys? It’s really hard to talk about, because there’s things you like to keep internally,” says Sutter. “It’s just not on-ice. It begins inside your room . . . and works its way out onto the ice. Some of it is certainly stuff, that, as a coach, you can deal with . . . but some things are a lot deeper than the coach. And that’s when you need that support from above.”

What is Sutter referring to? What is deeper than the coach? The Flames have had four coaches in the past seven years and all have struggled with inconsistency and have not produced the results expected by the owners and the Flames fan base. While no coach has come out and said it, they have all hinted at a couple of things. One being, that at times the Flames players were a difficult group to coach and the second being, that the owners are very involved in the decisions made over players and personnel.  Again all we can do is speculate but lets pretend we are Brent Sutter and lets quickly look back at his tenure. The Flames have an elite goalie, a consistent 30 goal winger and many other talented pieces that lead the team on many winning streaks that have everyone beliving they are a contending team. Then there are the poor starts to seasons, losing streaks, and slumps by high paid players. Overall, a team that looked really good and also really bad. An average team that struggled with consistency. It was interesting that even during the Flames winning streaks Sutter was never satisfied and during the losing streaks his frustration was like I have never seen on a coach. Maybe it wasn’t specifically Iginla as a player or person but more a question of his leadership qualities and his inability to rally his teammates to align themselves with the ideologies of the coach. Very few people in the hockey world would every question Iginla, especially Flames fans.

The reality is that the Flames have only made it past the first round once with Iginla on the roster. Many fans don’t want to admit it, but the fact is Iginla is not the same player he once was. It is very impressive that Iginla has been able to put up the offensive numbers with in spite of his very average skating and one on one skills. He struggles to create anything on his own and is only successful in the corners and along the boards where he can rely on his strength and not his skating or puck skills. Iginla has always said the right things that he wants to win and do whatever it takes to win, but after the past couple of seasons under Sutter I question that. I will admit that he has improved defensively but the reality is that Iginla’s defensive efforts can be described as falling below the hash marks once or twice a game in his own end. Why does Iginla never play the penalty kill? Shouldn’t you want your best players on in all situations? We constantly hear that Iginla has never had a top centre to play with and that has held him back as well as the team. However, no one has ever questioned Iginla’s ability to improve the players he plays with. A true elite player should be able to play with anyone and make anyone a better player. Just look at Sidney Crosby, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

Back to the Flames coaching carousel.  The fans in Calgary are very knowledgeable and are not stupid. The Flames have not had any type of playoff success since before the lockout and the only things that have remained constant are the ownership group, president Ken King, and two remaining players from the 2004 run, Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff. Flames fans realize that there needs to be a big change. I am afraid to say that I don’t have a lot of faith that those changes will be made. Some are in the belief that King is a big reason why the Saddledome continues to be consistently sold out but the truth is he rode the wave of the 2004 success and the rejuvenation of hockey in Canada after the lockout. He is too close to the owners and will most likely keep his job as long as the Flames continue to fill the building and turn a profit. Hopefully he realizes that season ticket holders can’t even re-sell their tickets for face value and often can’t even give tickets away. King and the owners take for granted the strong corporate presence in Calgary and need to understand that while there is a lot of money in downtown Calgary, companies aren’t going to continue to throw away money to a team that isn’t successful. I don’t think the owners will ever approve a trade of Iginla and it comes down to the simple fact that they know if they did trade Iginla there would be a very good chance that the sell-out streak would end and losses would be incurred over the loss in revenue from Iginla’s merchandise alone. Hopefully the owners will realize that it may not happen right away but if the Flames don’t make significant changes and continue to miss the playoffs the owners will have  a much bigger problem on their hands.

What does this all mean? I strongly believe that Sutter decided to not return to the Flames because he was told that the Flames were going to stick on the same path that they have for years. Sutter may have felt the changes necessary were a trade of the captain, or maybe it was for a new president and a shakeup higher up in the organization? Whatever it was, a really good coach who grew up in Alberta and left New Jersey to be closer to his family and his WHL’s Red Deer Rebels is now gone.

Quick Notes

  • Including the 2007 Canada- Russia Super Series in 2007 and his two World Junior appearances Sutter has an international coaching record of 19-0-1.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Cam Ward and Dion Phaneuf all are very familiar with Sutter who is owner and former coach of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels.
  • Canada is currently ranked 4th in IIHF Mens World Rankings behind Russia, Sweden and Finland.
  • Canada has not won gold at the World’s since 2007 in Moscow. The Canadian team has failed to win a medal at the previous two championships.
  • Jay Bouwmeester of Team Canada and Chris Butler of Team USA are the two lone Flames players heading to the Worlds this spring.
  • Canada is in the Helsinki pool and is in the midst of round robin play and currently leads the pool with a 3-0-1 record.