Some thoughts on a failed season


OK, finally coming out of my mourning period. I think we can now talk openly about the untimely death of the Calgary Flames.

This week, the Flames have died the way they lived. Without nearly enough scoring. Unable to win at home. Showing only enough energy, determination and skill to stay close, not enough to win. With little sense of character or focus. With a goalie doing everything he could to bail out his team, putting in a Vezina-worthy season, but with most of the rest of the team playing well below their potential. With the captain and superstar utterly unable to do the job he’s being paid $7-million a year to do.

Through we’re heartbroken, let’s at least try to set aside our grief, anger and frustration and find some perspective.

With one game left, the Flames have 90 points – hardly horrible. (In fact, if they were in the Eastern Conference, it would be enough for the sixth seed in the playoffs.) A few bounces in a few close games and this would be a playoff team. 90 points with at least eight forwards putting in seasons well below their typical production. A stretch run that came close, despite injuries that took out two of the team’s most dynamic forwards (Daymond Langkow, Curtis Glencross, who are also key penalty-killers) at a critical juncture. And the team has shaved a half a goal a game off its goals-against – the kind of strong defensive play the team wanted to establish when it brought in Brent Sutter to coach.

It all suggests the Flames might be a decent offensive player or two away from being a contender again, doesn’t it?

But beneath this surface, there’s something else seriously wrong. All you have to do is watch this team play and you sense it.

The apparent strong defensive play is an illusion, largely a function of Miikka Kiprusoff; tthe team has given up as many shots this year as they did a year ago, which is to say too many. The forwards, a mishmash of third-liners and under-achieving cast-offs from other mediocre teams, look on most nights as if they’ve never played together before. The team looks slow in all three zones, passive on the puck, and most nights shows little desire to check hard or hit hard.

Tellingly, this team actually had a losing record at home this season (if you count overtime and shootout losses). They play a tight, nervous, uncertain and unconfident game on their home rink.

Who do you look to? The guy who built the team and the guy who can’t get it to play. Both named Sutter.

I hate to be a “fire the coach” guy again (last year I was willing to personally escort Mike Keenan out of town, a few years ago I insisted Jim Playfair couldn’t handle the job), but the play reflects the coach. There’s no doubt the team’s style on the ice has changed dramatically with Brent Sutter’s arrival. Some of it for the better, but I wonder if the system he has tried to instill is a poor fit for the personnel he has (as much as they all insist the system is not the problem – notably, with Sutter the most vocal in that regard).

This team does not look comfortable at all playing the way the coach wants them to play. They look nervous. They look afraid to take chances, to be creative, to make mistakes. It’s especially evident at home. And I think the coach has these guys skating on eggshells.

My friend and co-blogger, Iain Godsman, said after the 2-1 loss to San Jose that eliminated the Flames from playoff contention, “I would NOT want to be in that dressing room now.” Frankly, I don’t think any tirade from Sutter would much matter to this team. After a season of ranting, scowling, scolding, publicaly calling guys out, they’ve already tuned him out. They clearly haven’t emotionally committed to him and the game he wants them to play, the way they did with his older brother Darryl when he was coach a few years ago.

The old saying is that the coach takes the fall for a team’s failure because you can’t get rid of all the players. But this team has already tried getting rid of the supposed problems that were holding them back from success – hell, it dumped a third of its roster in February. The new group of players wasn’t any better than the old group. Having already tried getting rid of the players, the answer is even more clear that maybe the coach IS the problem.

Besides, thanks to dreadful cap management, senseless signings (how much are we paying Matt Stajan and for how long???) and a lack of prospect development, there’s not much you can do at this stage to turn over the personnel on this team even if you wanted to – not if you expect to actually replace the current overpaid bunch with something better.

And that’s where Darryl Sutter comes in. He’s the guy who keeps firing and hiring coaches, keeps signing and trading players, keeps talking about what he’s trying to build – yet he now seems further away from actually building it than he has been in years, and has left himself with few tools to build it.

For years now, my solution to the Flames’ revolving coaching door has been the same: Darryl Sutter should step down as GM and go back behind the bench. But he preferred not to, sticking to a job that frankly, he doesn’t do very well. It’s too late for Darryl now; he won’t have to fire his own brother, because he’s all but certain now to be fired himself. Someone new is needed to clean up this dysfunctional mess, and that probably means both behind the bench and in the front office.