A while ago, a former NHL GM gave me a great insight into his profession – specifically, the reason why GMs make what most people would consider to be stubborn decisions:
“Look, GMs are supposed to believe in their players, in their coaches, in their entire staff,” the ex-GM said. “They’re not going to be cheerleaders for everybody from top to bottom. But every GM has a core group of people they implicitly trust and will go to bat for no matter what. Sometimes that loyalty is repaid in the form of a Stanley Cup, but probably more times, it’s the reason why GMs become ex-GMs.”
That is the story of Calgary’s now-former GM Darryl Sutter and the nasty mess in which he has left the Flames.
According to a team press release on Wednesday, Sutter is “stepping down” as Flames GM and vice-president. (Former Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster will take over for him as acting GM.)
But it’s what he has stepped in over his eight-year tenure that has caused Sutter to take the steps he did on Wednesday.
Forget, if you can, Calgary’s current 16-18-3 record (good for 14th in the Western Conference) – and by the same token, also forget about the Flames’ mesmerizing run to the Cup Final in 2004. Instead, try and see where the organization is now through Sutter’s acts of loyalty:
• He has stood by Jarome Iginla, even as Calgary’s captain has teetered toward his mid-30s and has been unable to find consistent chemistry with virtually every other Flames forward. Trading Iginla certainly wouldn’t have made Sutter Mr. Popularity, but it would have put the Flames back on a rebuilding course sooner than the one they likely will dive headlong into now.
• He acquired Olli Jokinen, traded him away, then re-signed him last summer. The former Panthers captain has long ceased to be considered an elite NHL center, but Sutter’s re-investment in his services was another head-scratcher in league circles.
• He handed out no-trade/no-movement clauses to more than half his current roster. Eleven Flames in total have such a clause, making Feaster’s cleanup job that much more difficult.
• He re-signed center Matt Stajan to a four-year, $14 million deal that worsened an already-awful salary cap situation – and, incredibly, he did so after seeing Stajan in a Calgary uniform for just four weeks. The Flames are committed to more than $56 million for next season and almost certainly will have no chance at quick improvement via the free agency market, or by a prospect system that is all but bare. That’s all on Sutter.
The end of Sutter’s reign came eight years to the day he took the job. Unfortunately, Flames ownership should have scratched what clearly had become a nagging itch after seven years. Dissatisfaction with Sutter in Calgary had been apparent for ages, but team president Ken King showed his GM the same type of loyalty Sutter showed for his key guys.
In a sense, that is admirable. But when loyalty fails on a grand scale the way it has in Calgary, Sutter’s Rosebud-like devotion became kindling for the fire he was tossed into Wednesday.
Sutter’s competitive embers were too hot to quickly extinguish, which is a credit to his famous resolve. But the delay in putting out his fires – and the costs of re-seeding Calgary’s virtually barren field – will set back the Flames’ Cup chase for at least the next few years.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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