Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Brent Sutter's coaching career & potential for success

In his post-game reaction after last night's kick-in-the-groin last-minute loss to the Red Wings, The Battle of Alberta's Matt Fenwick had this to say:
"As far as I can tell, Brent is Craig Hartsburg, though with the good fortune of having more talented pro teams. Every fan of just about every team gets frustrated with the "hang back and get railed when you have a lead" strategy (it's not rare), but the Flames' Prevent D this season is the worst and most flaccid I can remember seeing. Brent's strength is supposed to be Team D, and yet..."
Which, naturally, got me wondering. Is Brent Sutter really the new Craig Hartsburg? Unable to translate coaching success at the junior level to the big leagues? Hartsburg's successes in junior were limited, until this season, when he joined the Everett Silvertips of the WHL and coached them to a 97-point season and second place in their division, his NHL teams never advanced past the second round of the playoffs and he was relieved of his coaching duties twice, with the Ducks and Senators. Like Brent Sutter, he coached the Canadian National Junior Team to two straight championships before taking a job in the NHL.

Brent had great success with the Red Deer Rebels, missing the playoffs only once during his tenure and winning a Memorial Cup in 2001. In two seasons with New Jersey he coached the team to 90+ point seasons and a playoff birth, but the Devils were upset in the first round each time. As Matt noted, Brent had the luxury of taking over a winning team with a history of consistency, regardless of personnel changes. Even when Martin Brodeur was injured for over half the season, the Devils were never really in danger of missing the playoffs.

When Brent left the Devils, the organization and the players had nothing but good things to say about him, but about mid-way through the season, rumours of Jarome Iginla accusing his coach of relying too heavily on "junior tactics" surfaced, and others began to wonder if his coaching style only works in junior.

An analysis of Brent's coaching style done by In Lou We Trust at M&G in the summer sounds shockingly accurate in retrospect. While the consensus seems to be that the Devils struggled under Sutter's system in his first year with the team, specifically on special teams, they became more aggressive both offensively and defensively, driving possession, increasing scoring, and winning puck battles, in his second and final season with New Jersey. I for one would like to see a continuation of this trend, because it's sure as hell not happening consistently this season.

One of the most notable observations in this analysis struck me as particularly relevant to the Flames' defensive play this season:
"Incidentally it's when they bunkered or switched to ultra-defensive tactics did they look really shaky."
Despite the Flames' improved defensive numbers (3rd in goals against, 7th in team +/-), it's troubling to know that this is a continuing trend. This "prevent defence" or "defensive shell" occurs when the Flames have a lead or are tied, and almost always results in them panicking and allowing a goal or taking an unnecessary penalty. Other areas of their game have suffered; offence, powerplay, faceoff percentage--but it remains to be seen if it is at the expense of defence. I talked about how he achieved a balance between offence and defence with the Devils in the off season and how it would be a challenge to reproduce that with the Flames, which appears to be what we're seeing now.

Another interesting part of this analysis was the observation that Sutter juggled his lines a lot during his first season with the team because the forwards were having trouble adhering to his system, resulting in a general lack of chemistry.
"When Sutter first started in NJ in 07-08, he started off having the Devils try and play a puck-possession game, where dumping the puck would be the first move into the zone and the Devils forwards would fight down low, win the puck back, protect it, and proceed as necessary (e.g. cycling down low, moving the puck back to the point) until space is made for a shot. The Devils initially struggled with this tactic and Sutter constantly mixed up the lines to find a spark. All that did was guarantee that no chemistry was developed and so the offense was really just dumping and chasing more than anything else. Line matching was also something Sutter leaned on in that season.

In 2008-09, the Devils were more confident in playing that style - with all four lines being able to do this and do it consistently. As a result, Sutter kept the lines as they were which developed chemistry among linemates, they found more holes going forward so they didn't always dump it, the defenders were able to pinch in more, and while they didn't throw a ton of hits, they pounded opposition defenses over and over all game long instead of fading in the third period like they did in 07-08. I guess you can say their "fighting spirit" lasted all 60 minutes for the most part. Overall their goal totals flourished while still maintaining a solid defense. Even the power play improved. So for the most part, Sutter's coaching was very beneficial after a rough first year."
Sutter has been guilty of switching up his line combinations a lot this season, perhaps not to the degree of the infamous Mike Keenan Line Blender, but pretty close. While he has kept together lines that click, he has also insisted on breaking up lines that show potential and keeping together line combinations that are frustratingly ineffective. I think he is starting to learn that line-matching, especially power-vs-power, doesn't always work as desired, hence the deployment of Langkow et al against top quality opposition rather than the Iginla unit, giving the latter more favourable circumstances, in theory.

The commentary on Brent's playoff failures with the Devils is clearly the most worrying of all:
"In 2008, the Devils were floating/seemed tentative for 4 out of 5 games against the Rangers - guess the results of those 4 games. The Rangers are Our Hated Rival, and Sutter can't even get these guys to play with a little fire? In 2009, Sutter bizarrely went from doing what worked in the regular season in Game 1 to strict line-matching by Game 7. I almost want to say that in 2010, Sutter may get the playoffs right, but his ability to make appropriate adjustments in the postseason, in retrospect, is quite suspect."
The Flames might not have to worry about the possibility of Sutter's coaching mishaps contributing to an early exit from the playoffs this season, but it's certainly a concern going forward, as these instances have already occurred in the regular season. I can think of numerous occasions where the Flames have looked uninspired playing against a divisional rival or in an important game, most recently last night against the Red Wings. I'm not saying that the onus is all on him, but as I mentioned in my previous post, the coaching staff plays a big part in motivating their team and making sure they're all on the same page. It seems that when Sutter is finally able to light a fire under his players, it's too late. There's a balance between not being involved enough and letting the players run the show and being over-involved, and maybe Sutter has yet to find that balance in the NHL.

If Sutter's second year with New Jersey is any indication, he definitely has the potential for success. A coach's success almost always depends partially on unknown variables--the right players, the right circumstances--which is why it is such a tough business. I'm not ready to write Brent of just yet, let alone declare his hiring a mistake. I think that Flames fans have reason to be optimistic where the coaching staff is concerned, as Dave Lowry is another coach making the jump from junior to the big leagues, and could be next in line for the job should Sutter receive his walking papers, which I think is extremely unlikely; I can think of another Sutter brother who could be shown the door before Brent, and perhaps deservedly so.


  1. Brent Sutter needs to leave some of his strong arm coaching tactics in the WHL. He's going to wear the players out with that constant scowl - if he hasn't already. You can't treat NHL'ers the same as 16 year kids that are lucky to play for you and have no other options. Remember when the Flames were playing well? Was that coincidentally before he started breaking sticks and telling his players that they weren't going to get complacent or is there something to it? Remember how great of a coach Andy Murray was before the players got tired of him?


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