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Goodbye Giordano, Hello Sutter: Inside the Flames' Make-or-Break Season

The Flames, desperate for a deep playoff run, have molded their new team identity around their coach's personality. Will it work?
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The Calgary Flames can try to downplay the 2021-22 season’s importance. They can claim the stakes are the same as they are every year. But all they have to do is look around their dressing room, and it’s obvious there’s a lot on the line.

Center Sean Monahan only needs to look across from his stall to understand how different things will be. His longtime close friend, the Flames captain, Mark Giordano, won’t be sitting in his old spot. He’s a Seattle Kraken now. Flames GM Brad Treliving tried to save him from being claimed, but the side-deal ask from Kraken GM Ron Francis was too high, so off Giordano went, leaving a gargantuan leadership void in Calgary. “You kind of expected it, reading things and stuff like that, but it’s still a shock, and I think it’s still going to be a shock once I get into camp and he’s not there,” Monahan told The Hockey News in early September. “I’ve sat in the same stall looking across from him for almost nine years now, and it… it’s different. I train with him every day in the summer, too. It’s going to be weird when he’s not around.”

“You could go to him for anything,” said Flames left winger Andrew Mangiapane at the NHL Player Media Tour’s Toronto stop last week. “Whether it’s, whatever, your contract, or you're looking at buying a house or anything like that, he was always there, ready to listen. He was a great guy, great captain, so I wish nothing but the best for him. It sucks that he left, but that’s the business, and guys are going to have to step up and take a bigger role on our team.”

Giordano was a Flame for 15 seasons and wore the ‘C’ for eight. His voice in Calgary’s room will be irreplaceable. It’s possible the strongest voice in that room going forward won’t be a player’s. It may be that of hardnosed coach Darryl Sutter, whom the sputtering Flames hired in the middle of last season, replacing Geoff Ward. The Flames only played .500 hockey after Sutter took over, but the players feel they learned a lot from him in that half-season. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner as a coach, and he’s a throwback, known as one of the most intimidating bench bosses in the sport, not always approachable as an equal in his players’ eyes. His methods, which can sometimes include negative reinforcement, are controversial in the modern game but, at least so far, his new troops are buying in. “He knows what it takes to win,” Mangiapane said. “He may yell at you or tell you something that you need to do better or whatnot, but he's doing that for the sake of the team. What you've got to get your head around is, he's not yelling at you to put you down. He's yelling at you to get you going…He's straightforward with you. If you're doing something good, he'll say, ‘Good job.’ If you're doing something bad, he's going to say, ‘OK, you gotta change it.’ You know where you stand, you know what you're going to get, so it's easy to play for a coach like that.”

Sutter teams aren’t known for their offense, but his peak Kings’ squads were absolute dominators in the possession game. He coached Calgary for its final 30 games last season, starting on March 11. From that point on, the Flames allowed the second-fewest shot attempts per 60 at 5-on-5 and generated the eighth most, per naturalstattrick.com. Their overall shot-attempt share was second in the NHL only to the Colorado Avalanche’s once Sutter took over, and the Flames had the second-lowest expected goals against per 60 at 5-on-5. The increased discipline didn’t boost them in the standings, but those under-the-hood stats suggest they were unlucky and actually played better hockey once Sutter took over.

Treliving appears to be shaping his roster to fit a Sutter mold now. Last season, Calgary’s splashy win-now additions included goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Chris Tanev. This off-season, the team added quite the lunchpail crew. The biggest get, of course, was Blake Coleman, signed for six seasons at a $4.9-million AAV, fresh off winning consecutive Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s a coach’s pet of a player: he forechecks aggressively, he can play all three forward positions, and he kills penalties. Calgary also added crash-and-bang right winger Tyler Pitlick, a towering bruiser on defense in Nikita Zadorov and a Sutter disciple in center Trevor Lewis, who took a regular shift on the 2012 and 2014 Kings championship teams.

Rather than adapt to the existing core, then, it appears Sutter and Treliving want the Flames to take on Sutter’s identity. That will come naturally to the likes of brawny right winger Matthew Tkachuk, but what about the holdovers from Calgary’s core in the past decade such as Monahan and left winger Johnny Gaudreau? Monahan is optimistic about the fit because believes there’s more than one way to play Darryl Sutter hockey. “He's going to push us to play hard and play a hard-style game, but that's doesn't just mean going around to hit everybody or fight and whatnot,” Monahan said. “It’s hanging onto pucks, making strong plays, being hard in the faceoff circle and being hard to play against. That has to be our attitude and part of our identity throughout the whole season.”

And if it doesn’t work? What happens if the Flames, who have one playoff series win and one play-in series win since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2003-04, miss the playoffs again? There’s no guarantee every core player makes it through the whole season as a Flame. Gaudreau is a pending UFA and hasn’t been the same player since his scintillating 2018-19, in which he busted out for 99 points. His shifty finesse game seems to clash with Sutter, who publicly called Gaudreau out for poor play in late March last season, though Gaudreau actually ignited for 22 points in his final 16 games. He’ll be a coveted commodity if the Flames fall out of contention by the trade deadline, though he’ll have significant control over where he goes, as his no-trade clause, which kicks in this season, consists of a five-team trade list.

And what about Monahan? He has two season left on his contract and carries a 10-team no-trade list. After scoring a career-high 34 goals in Calgary’s first-place 2018-19 campaign, he’s managed 32 goals in 120 games across the past two seasons and has a lot of injury-and-surgery mileage for a 26-year-old. He knows the rumors will keep swirling if Calgary starts slowly, but he blocks them out. Well, he tries to. “When you play for a team for so long, people are going to talk about it if you're not in the playoffs or not making strong pushes,” he said.” “I don't focus on it at all, to be honest, but, it is what it is. It's obviously out there, I love playing in Calgary, and I'm looking to have a bounce-back year. It’s going to be an important year.”

The Pacific Division looks like the toughest to forecast in 2021-22. The Vegas Golden Knights appear to have a stranglehold on first place, and the Edmonton Oilers are a strong bet for second, but we can toss the rest of the division in a blender. The Kings and Vancouver Canucks made aggressive roster improvements over the summer. The Kraken look competitive, at least defensively, on paper. So where do the Flames fit in? They believe they’re contenders. They wouldn’t have paid up for Coleman if they didn’t. But if Calgary doesn’t make significant progress, it could see radical changes by next season, not just among player personnel, but in the front office.

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