During Darryl Sutter's tenure in Calgary, my opinion on his abilities as a general manager has wavered with great frequency. My exact words on Wednesday night, when my dad asked me why I was in such a foul mood: "Because some maniac is running my favourite team into the ground."
It's fairly apparent that Sutter's philosophy on how to build a winning hockey team has not changed much since 2004. After losing some key players during the lockout season, Sutter acquired Huselius and Langkow to fill out his top six and then depended on veteran role players like Nilson, McCarty, Amonte, Richie, and Donovan--all of whom's effectiveness was limited. On defence, he adopted the same blueprint--Regehr, a rookie Dion Phaneuf, Hamrlik, and Leopold made up the top four while Mark Giordano played seven games and Cale Hulse, Rhett Warrener, and Bryan Marchment shared bottom-pairing duties. The Flames won the division that year despite being somewhere near the bottom of the league in goals for. Jarome Iginla accumulated only sixty-seven points.
It appeared Sutter had finally satisfied a long-standing need when he acquired play-maker Alex Tanguay at the draft; he had a career year with eighty-one points, Iginla found himself back near the top of the league in scoring, and Langkow, Huselius, and Lombardi also had career years for the Flames. Scoring improved by a wide margin, but the team struggled on the defensive side of things and barely scraped into the playoffs, where their lack of mobility, speed, and skill relative to the Red Wings was exposed, yet Sutter was still relying on those aging vets and fringe-NHLers to fill out his roster, most of whom proved to be slow and ineffective in the new, more wide-open game after the lockout.
The 2007-08 season was much of the same. Despite a career season from Iginla, scoring continued to drop and goals against continued to rise. The lone bright spot on an old team largely made up of grinders and role players was the emergence of Boyd, Nystrom, and Moss, --all drafted and developed within the organization--as possible cheap replacements.
Then, a moment of sanity in the off season. In what were some of his more brilliant moves since he managed to defy the odds and lock up his "core" players to long-term contracts, Sutter purged the team of its dead weight--gone were Eriksson, Nilson, and Warrener and in came Cammalleri, Glencross, Bourque, and Giordano (Round Two.) It seemed like he was finally getting the hang of this whole post-lockout hockey thing, and the team was benefitting from it, up until the debacle that was the final month and half of the Flames' season.
After overpaying for Olli Jokinen at the deadline, a move that I instantly hated but will admit made sense at the time, untimely injuries and poor salary cap management didn't allow the Flames to dress a full roster--and they paid dearly for it, stumbling down the stretch and blowing what appeared to be an insurmountable thirteen-point division lead, ultimately resulting in another early playoff exit. I jumped on the Fire Sutter Bandwaggon at full speed for the first time that spring.
In the summer, Darryl redeemed himself somewhat. He gave the coaching staff their walking papers, rid the team of more bad contracts by letting Aucoin walk, dumping Primeau on Toronto in return for two solid prospects (Stralman would later be traded), and re-acquiring Prust from Phoenix in return for Vandermeer. After acquiring the rights to and then signing Bouwmeester, the little money that was left for forwards was put to relatively good use given the limited pool of free agents available. The loss of Cammalleri was bemoaned to nauseam around these parts, but it was generally thought that Bouwmeester's addition to the blueline as well as a full season from Olli Jokinen would make up for it.
Needless to say that wasn't the case, and three-quarters of the way through this season with his team unable to find the back of the net and plummeting down the standings, Sutter traded one of his biggest assets in an underperforming Dion Phaneuf to Toronto for what essentially appeared to be Niklas Hagman and a considerable amount of cap space. The move left many Flames fans feeling unsatisfied due to the lack of a draft pick and a real difference maker coming back in the deal, but the potential for immediate scoring help was there. Mere days after that, a rumoured trade sending Jokinen to the Rangers came to fruition, and the acquisition of Ales Kotalik and his three-million dollar contract signed through next season perplexed fans yet again.
After signing both Bourque and Stajan to reasonable but lengthy contract extensions in recent weeks and acquiring Steve Staios and his $2.7 million cap hit for next season, the money Sutter saved by unloading Phaneuf is once again tied up in a group of fairly average players. Rather than using the cap space to chase a player the Flames actually need in the off season, like, I don't know, a first line centre or winger, and giving himself some flexibility under the cap going forward, he has again dug himself a hole in salary cap hell. There seems to be a pattern here; for every step forward, Darryl Sutter takes two steps back.
As for the team's well-documented drafting capabilities, it's impossible to predict whether or not success in Junior or NCAA will transfer into success at the NHL level, but Mitch Wahl is having a fantastic season with the Spokane Chiefs, as are Greg Nemisz (Windsor Spitfires) and Ryan Howse (Chilliwhack Bruins). Mikael Backlund was recently recalled from Abbotsford after being named AHL Player Of The Week, recording six points and a +6 rating in three games. Most of the Flames' recent picks are looking a hell of a lot better in comparison to the players Sutter drafted in his first couple years with the team, but the team's scouts probably deserve most if not all of the credit for that.
In my opinion, we are looking at a man who potentially saved the Flames. That might sound a little dramatic, but who knows where this team would be if the 2004 cup run had never happened, after seven years of missing the playoffs? If he had never acquired Miikka Kiprusoff or re-signed Jarome Iginla? I really do respect Darryl's continued efforts to build a winning team; his dedication to making this franchise competitive year after year really is amazing, and he certainly cannot be criticized for lack of trying.
He has always had the right intentions, but some of his efforts have been misguided and old fashioned. At the end of the day, it's not his fault that the players he signs don't perform as expected, but this time it seems that he's made one too many mistakes and has played all his cards. The only real bargaining chips he has left are the big name players--Iginla, Kiprusoff, Regehr, Bouwmeester--and trading one or more of them would almost certainly mean the beginning of the dreaded "rebuild."
Since Ken King essentially admitted that Sutter has an "infinite" contract, It can be assumed that the only way we will see him go is if he resigns when he sees fit. Maybe missing the playoffs will help that process along. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later before I resent him forever for paralyzing the franchise with bad contracts and a murky future, which will likely be pretty damn soon.