By Stu Hackel
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the NHL's self-immolating franchise, the Calgary Flames.
There are pretty bad stories surrounding some NHL clubs right now. The New York Islanders' team photo could be the dictionary illustration for the word "woeful." The Toronto Maple Leafs, who last night lost for the 16th time in their last 20 games, were called "the worst team $1 billion can buy" in The Globe and Mail. The New Jersey Devils, from whom much was expected, seem to have fallen into a sinkhole from which they cannot extricate themselves.
The Flames, who this morning reside in the Western Conference basement, seem intent on joining those three teams. Calgary's current situation is made all the more glum by the recent play of their bitter provincial rival, the despised Edmonton Oilers, who just completed a three-game sweep of Canada's eastern teams (using a different goaltender in each victory) and whose infant players are showing the first signs of growth (which is the only conclusion you can come to when 18-year-old top draft choice Taylor Hall gets booed in Montreal).
The Flames are going in the other direction. They are not getting younger, they are not acquiring more talent, they are not winning. Their personnel decisions have been suspect for a while -- head-scratchers like reacquiring Olli Jokinen last summer was but one in a string -- and in today's Calgary Sun, Randy Sportak, after listing and analyzing Darryl Sutter's moves during the past year, calls on the team to fire the GM.
Observers have wondered for a while if the clock was ticking on Sutter and his brother Brent, the Flames' head coach. But even though this looks like a team stumbling around in the dark much of the time, the franchise's hierarchy seems intent on sticking with the Sutters.
Jarome Iginla, although no longer the subject of trade rumors, still faces curious scrutiny, although he's rarely, if ever, had a center to complement his talents. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who is heroic many nights with little help from an underperforming defense corps, more frequently allows bad goals as he just appears exasperated.
The Flames' most recent debacle, a total third-period collapse on home ice in Wednesday's 7-2 loss to the Canucks, meant that they've grabbed only 10 points of a possible 32 in their last 16 games. Their only bright spot since late October was a mediocre mini-stretch from mid-to-late November when they were playing fairly well, but not always putting points in the bank.
The Flames would have settled for mediocrity on Wednesday. They had just done a fine job killing off a five minute cross-checking major to Curtis Glencross and were entering the third period trailing Vancouver by only a goal and on a fresh power play of their own. But Mason Raymond's shorthanded goal -- his third tally of the game -- not only extended the Canucks' lead, it short-circuited Brent Sutter's mainframe. He responded by throwing five defensemen on the ice for the remainder of the power play.
"Well, our power play — we weren’t doing anything on it," Sutter explained after the game. "I didn’t think our forwards were working very hard on it. The first unit went out there . . . they never spent any time in the offensive zone whatsoever, so I thought I’d give the defensemen an opportunity to play on it. That was why I did it. They don’t get that chance very often, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ "
It was all downhill from there. The coach may have been sending a message to his club, but the one they seem to have received was that he wasn't really trying to get that goal back, a very unSutter-like surrender. The Flames' performance the rest of the game had the whiff of revolt about it.
Calgary is a hard place to play. With the dour, challenging Sutters in charge and a press corps that has few other sports to focus upon, the atmosphere is what former Flame Eric Nystrom described this week as "overbearing."
The Flames are fortunate, however. That little warm spell in November kept them theoretically in the hunt for the playoffs, which perhaps accounts for the Sutters' current job security. The West, after all, is insanely tight. Only 12 points separate the Flames from first-place Detroit. Calgary is but six points out of a playoff spot, and seven points below fifth place. The season is still relatively young, but the Flames have many teams to climb over, now even the Oilers, who everyone had figured for last place.
So Brent Sutter, who called that third period performance "unacceptable," tried be be sunnier on Thursday, telling the media, “We have to learn from it and I know that's something we continue to say, but you can't sit around and feel sorry for yourselves because it's going to have a huge impact on us."
Beginning tonight in St. Paul against the Wild, the Flames play four of their next five on the road, where they have not been good. “We know this is a key month," Sutter added, "a big month for us and we have to continue to push forward here and try to get some wins.”
That's putting it mildly.