There’s a hierarchy when heads roll in the NHL. Do we know if coach Geoff Ward was really the problem in Calgary? Hardly. He was thrust into duty unexpectedly last season when Bill Peters resigned over the revelations of his racist behavior. Ward guided Calgary to a 24-15-3 finish, and they defeated an arguably superior Winnipeg Jets team during the play-in round of the bubble playoffs last year. Ward only got 66 regular-season games with the Flames between last season and this one, amassing a 35-26-5 record and .568 points percentage.
But he was always going to get the guillotine before anyone else. The Flames went all-in on a win-now mentality over the 2020 off-season, giving goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Chris Tanev a combined $10.5-million AAV on multi-year contracts. There was no turning back for a team with one playoff series win since reaching the 2004 Stanley Cup final. Missing the post-season in 2021 would be unacceptable. Even after outbursts of six and seven goals during their current series with the Ottawa Senators, the Flames still rank just 23rd in goals per game. Their special teams sit in the middle of the pack. They haven’t been a definitively terrible team this season, but their effort has been consistently inconsistent. Their longest winning streak is three games, and they’ve accomplished that once en route to an 11-11-2 record.
So what does the established mid-season hierarchy tell teams to do in hopes of finding that spark? Change the coach. Bigger ideas like trading Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan or axing GM Brad Treliving would come later. The easiest fix for a team still fashioning itself as a contender is the mid-season coaching change.
Enter Darryl Sutter, whose previous head-coaching tenure began with him becoming one of the most successful mid-season replacements in NHL history. He took over a talented but underachieving Los Angeles Kings team holding a 15-14-4 record through Dec. 19, 2011, guided them to a 25-13-11 record the rest of the way and helped them become the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup in NHL history. Sutter was a taskmaster, known as the opposite of approachable, sometimes even intimidating to his own players, but his style perfectly suited a big, strong, physical Kings team. The Sutter Kings teams consistently dominated the shot-attempt shares and arguably launched the analytics era into mainstream consciousness with their success.
While the hiring is neither inspired nor exciting, it’s not surprising to see the Flames go with an old-guard choice after their internal promotion of Ward last year didn’t pan out. Sutter, after all, coached the Flames during the second-most successful era of their history, helping the Jarome-Iginla-led group reach Game 7 of the 2003-04 final. Sutter was also their GM from 2003 to late 2010. His reputation for how he treats players is spotty to say the least, and one of his former players, Daniel Carcillo, alleged in 2019 that Sutter was verbally abusive when Carcillo was a member of the Kings. But the desperate Flames are clearly nudging aside concerns over the old-school hockey rep and making a results-oriented hire. Sutter’s 634 wins rank 17th all-time. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion. He’s coached playoff teams in 14 of his 18 seasons. He’s an Alberta native, which makes the transition easier from a quarantine perspective.
But is he really such a good fit for this Calgary Flames team that it warranted a three-year contract?
Sutter’s grinding approach to the game fit the Iginla-era Flames and, most famously, the 2012 and 2014 Kings, because they were big, strong, heavy teams. The average NHLer in 2011-12 was 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds. The Cup-winning Kings: 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. The average NHLer in 2013-14 was 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds. The Cup-winning Kings: 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds. They outweighed their typical opponent by an average of nine pounds per player in 2014.
The 2020-21 Flames? Per a January 2021 report from The Athletic’s James Mirtle, they rank 22nd in average height and 21st in average weight. Sure, Johnny Gaudreau brings down the numbers, but monstrous Milan Lucic offsets him. The Flames have a few surly customers in Lucic, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, but they’re not one of the more rugged groups in the NHL at the moment. They sit 20th as a team in hits per 60 minutes. Perhaps Sutter gets that number up as he leans on his players and corrects a team work ethic that has been called into question all season, but can Sutter actually remedy Calgary’s biggest problem?
What the Flames aren’t doing is scoring. Before their recent stat-padding vacation against Ottawa, Calgary sat 27th in offense. It doesn't have a single point-per-game player. It has one representative among the league’s top 30 scorers in Gaudreau. Sutter’s teams have never been known for lighting the lamp. He won the Cup with teams ranked 29th and 26th in scoring. His Kings teams never finished higher than 10th in goals – and that was once. The Sutter game plan is all about lockdown defensive hockey.
If the glass is half empty: the Flames are a small team desperate for more offense and just hired a coach whose brand is grinding, low-scoring big-boy hockey. If the glass is half full: the Flames can’t score anyway, and their top-end talent can’t compete with that of other contenders, so they’re better off rebranding themselves as a defense-first operation. Under that scenario, the team wouldn’t run through Gaudreau anymore. It would belong to Tkachuk and defensively reliable forwards such as Mikael Backlund.
On paper, the hiring looks like a mismatch. But perhaps that’s what Treliving wants: a disruptor who forces this team to change its identity. And if the mix turns out to be oil and water? With Sutter signed for three years, the Flames may begin remaking their roster to fit his template.