If you follow me on Twitter/X (@CGYFireBird), you may recall that I gave Darryl Sutter a longer leash than most Calgary Flames fans did last season. Notwithstanding his “boring” brand of hockey, the optimist in me held on to belief that the season would turn around for the Flames. In retrospect, the evidence I relied on to bolster that belief may have been a big ol’ pile of excuses. Based on the 111-point season in 2021/22, I thought there had to be so much more going on in the organization than I was privy to beyond solely a set-in-his-ways head coach. Whether it was toxic locker room chemistry that the players could overcome, high shot volume that would soon start to convert, bad luck that was bound to expire, goaltending that would find its way, or one of many in a myriad of other unjustified rationalizations, my bag of excuses was full.
Reflecting on the second Darryl Sutter era in Calgary Flames history with even a small sample of life as a Flames fan with head coach Ryan Huska is revealing some prior blind spots.
Before I “have to go take a [expletive]” on Sutter, let’s give the man some credit (if the idea of praising him makes you sick to your stomach, please don’t vomit on your phone or keyboard – just scroll down a bit). Darryl Sutter – while old school, grumpy, occasionally rude, stubborn, and divisive – is a kind and caring man with a good heart away from the rink. His coaching style is driven by his will to win. Despite everything we can knock him for, Sutter exited retirement with the goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Calgary – not winning another Cup for himself, but winning the hardest trophy in all of sports with and for the Calgary Flames. Sutter’s intentions were pure and you’re probably flat out lying to yourself if you tell me or yourself you weren’t fired up to watch this video while waving farewell to Glen Gulutzan, the racist guy, and Geoff Ward in the rearview mirror:
Be honest, this quote was electric: “For me, it’s unfinished business. […] “It’s like I have a debt to pay to [those] guys. And we’re going to win a Stanley Cup for them.”
Darryl Sutter won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, took a Calgary Flames team that had no business being in the Stanley Cup Final all the way to game seven in 2004, and coached the best team, line, and players the Flames have called their own in recent history.
He’s also never displayed behaviour akin to Mike Babcock’s or Bill Peters’ and raised an awesome son in Chris, who I hope is still willing to bring #ChrisSutterTime to the ‘Dome.
If you’re one of the vomiters, here’s where you should pick up your reading. The rest of this article contains topics of discussion that bring to light the damage Sutter inflicted on this franchise in his second stint as head coach in Calgary.
Darryl Sutter’s vacant captaincy and blatant disrespect for Mikael Backlund
It was the outpouring of support from Flames players leading up to and especially after the Calgary Flames named Mikael Backlund captain that triggered my Darryl Sutter thought spiral.
If, effectively since Mark Giordano was selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Kraken, Backlund has been viewed as the on and off-ice leader of the Calgary Flames, why did it take this long for a different letter to be stitched on his jersey?
Before Gio left, there was a spell when I thought Sean Monahan would be the next captain. But after Gio’s departure, I assumed the reason a veteran like Backlund wouldn’t be named captain was because the Flames had a youthful potential long-term leader on the roster in Matthew Tkachuk. If Flames’ management, coaching staff, and players aligned on a Tkachuk captaincy, we all would have accepted that, right?
In hindsight, the blockade that delayed a Backlund captaincy for longer than two years was manufactured and installed personally by Darryl Sutter. Well-documented are the feuds between Backlund and Sutter. As a cherry on top, Sutter actually went out of his way to commend players on other teams for their captain-like attributes, while simultaneously insisting that it wasn’t necessary for his team to have one. From Rob Williams at DailyHive Offside:
"“I like Luke Schenn a lot,” Sutter told reporters in Calgary when asked a question about his opponent. “I coached him in LA. He’s a top guy. He’d be captain on most teams. I like that.”"
At the time, fans were left to either buy in and believe Sutter was taking the right approach by delaying a Flames captaincy decision or to question it based on limited knowledge. Believing Sutter was easier to do – there were plenty of reasons not to name a captain last season, notably the absence of Tkachuk, who may have been the heir to the captain’s throne before relocating to Florida, the fact players prospective candidates Backlund, Elias Lindholm, and Chris Tanev were limited in contract term remaining, and that other options – Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar – were newcomers who needed to find their games before donning a second “C” on their sweater.
Recently, though, we’ve learned too much from key people on the inside of the organization to accept any of those narratives surrounding Darryl’s refusal to name a captain. According to management, current coaches, and most vocally, Flames players, Backlund has been the captain for a long time and all that was left was to formalize it. Clearer than ocean waters in the Maldives is the fact that Darryl Sutter flat-out prevented the longest-serving Calgary Flame from being named captain.
Even before Backlund’s captaincy was announced, players like Nikita Zadorov were publicly vocal on the topic. Via Wes Gilbertson of the Calgary Sun:
"“I feel like, my opinion, it’s only one guy in the room who should be captain,” the always-honest Zadorov said during a radio interview on Flames Talk on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “I think Mikael (Backlund) is definitely our captain. He’s been our captain for the past two years that I’ve been here. It’s just a formal thing to put a ‘C’ on his shoulder. That’s how simple it is.”"
Following the announcement, here’s what a few Flames players had to say (from CalgaryFlames.com):
"Huberdeau:“He’s a true leader, that’s a guy you want to play for and work for. He shows the way, off the ice or on the ice. I’m really happy for him.”“It’s a relief for us, that’s a guy you want to have in the room and on the ice.”Hanifin:“He’s just been one of the guys that I’ve looked up to for a long time now. He’s the ultimate pro, he just does it all right. He takes care of himself, he works super hard, he’s been a Flame for a really long time. He loves the city, he loves the community. He’s the perfect role model for everybody on the team to look up to and rally behind and we’re really excited about the decision.”Andersson:“Backs has been the leader in my eyes ever since I got drafted and ever since I stepped foot in that dressing room and became a regular.”"
Under Sutter, the absence of a formally recognized leader in the room was intentional; the coach’s job is to assign “A”s and a “C” when the time is right and Sutter neglected this vital responsibility. This choice alone contributed to a glaring communication barrier between the coaching staff and players contributing to high levels of frustration in the locker room. Sutter mistreated Mikael Backlund and the disrespect exhibited didn’t help his case with the rest of the roster.
Here’s Todd Saelhof of the Calgary Sun with a couple Sutter quotes on his intentional choice not to hand the “C” to now-captain Mikael Backlund:
"“There’s no need to name one,” said the Flames head coach Tuesday after practice.“There’s not a clear-cut one.”“I think in our 30-and-older age-group, there’s two guys that represent us very well who are — quite honestly — guys you could call co-captains in Mikael and Tanny.”"
Darryl Sutter: bad vibes only
Even if you love your profession, you’re not going to enjoy doing it if you hate where you work.
When Sutter was hired, it was no secret that he has the tendency to wear out his welcome in locker rooms. Had he not won a pair of Stanley Cups in LA, the Kings would have let him go much sooner.
In Calgary, though, it was hard to tell just how bad the vibes were until recently; the contrast we’re seeing between Huska and Sutter is night and day, even if our only glimpse is via media outlets and the team itself. With media personnel, Sutter was short, combative, and at times, condescending to his players; Huska is transparent, insightful, positive, and supportive of his players. Under Sutter, we rarely saw practice video and definitely didn’t see social media content like other teams in the NHL were posting. With Huska at the helm, we’re not seeing a mood shift, we’re witnessing a 180-degree turn that has the players seemingly excited to be members of the Calgary Flames. Do you believe in aliens?
I have no problem with old school hockey and I wouldn’t be upset if Taylor Swift or Travis Kelce reels from the Flames never appeared on my Instagram timeline again, but the point is that in order to win consistently for an extended period of time (longer than a single season), hockey players need to be led by a coach who enables a culture of positivity. They need to look forward to coming to the rink, something Sutter made impossible during his second coaching term in Calgary.
Darryl Sutter’s detriments to the Flames roster
Whether it stemmed from the Flames’ culture under Sutter, his on-ice coaching philosophies, or the way he treated his players, Darryl Sutter’s employment as head coach of the Calgary Flames had several potently negative impacts on the roster.
Knowing Sutter would be returning as head coach for at least one more season, Matthew Tkachuk requested a trade and left town and Johnny Gaudreau took the Flames to the final hour before decided to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency.
It’s impossible not to question whether or not the Flames’ two best forwards since Jarome Iginla would still be Calgary Flames if it weren’t for Darryl Sutter. Maybe their decisions weren’t only about living stateside or being closer to family; maybe the thought of reporting to Sutter was unattractive enough to play a role in their decisions.
Not only would Mikael Backlund not have been named captain if Sutter was still in Calgary, he wouldn’t have extended on a fairly team-friendly deal either. At the end of last season, Backlund and Lindholm made it clear they were keeping their options open and committing to extensions with the Flames wasn’t something they wanted to do without a summer in Sweden and a taste of life post-Sutter era. Now, Backlund has signed and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lindholm is the next to extend. If Noah Hanifin comes around and decides to stay in Calgary as well, we’ll have seen a remarkable change in thinking triggered largely in part to the fact that Darryl Sutter is no longer in charge.
Darryl Sutter’s mistreatment of Jakob Pelletier, Matthew Phillips, and young players
With Sutter’s Flames’ slow brand of north-south hockey struggling to score last season, a logical option may have been to inject the lineup with the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers’ top scorer in Matthew Phillips (76 points, 66 GP in 2022/23). Then-GM Brad Treliving seemed to like the idea, having called Phillips up to the big club in December, 2022. Unfortunately for Phillips, his NHL opportunity in Calgary pretty much ended there due to the stubbornness of Darryl Sutter, who stapled Phillips to the press box for ten days before eventually allowing him into the lineup for two games for a measly total of 18:04 of ice time.
Check out the Sutter/Matthew Phillips discussion on FlamesNation’s Barn Burner show featuring Frank Seravalli from earlier today:
Following Jakob Pelletier’s first NHL game, Sutter was asked about the performance of his rookie forward to which he responded by pretending not to know Pelletier’s jersey number and reading his stat line without adding any praise or personal thoughts on Pelletier’s performance. A player’s NHL debut should be celebrated and recognized by the head coach. Instead, Sutter chose to steal the spotlight and dampen what should have been a special moment for a player we hope is an impactful Calgary Flame for a long time.
According to Seravalli, Sutter’s mistreatment of Calgary’s young guys was one of the most infuriating behaviours from last season’s head coach.
Huberdeau’s struggles under Sutter
Jonathan Huberdeau put up 115 points in 2021/22 as a Florida Panther, breaking the NHL’s single-season record for left winger assists with 85. After the blockbuster trade that brought Huberdeau and fellow teammate MacKenzie Weegar to the Flames in exchange for Tkachuk, Huberdeau suffered from the greatest season-to-season production drop-off in league history with 55 points in 79 games.
Of course, a new city, teammates, systems, and a heap of other factors associated to a cross-continent move from the Floridian beaches to a Canadian hockey market may have contributed to Huberdeau’s severe lack of production, but Sutter’s choices with his new star winger did nothing to right the course. Sutter played Huberdeau on his off-wing, refused to test line combinations for potential chemistry, never adjusted the offensive game plan to fit Huberdeau’s playing style, limited his power play time, did not trust him in 3-on-3 overtime (a formerly elite part of Huberdeau’s game), and dropped his average TOI from 19:25 in Florida to 16:52 with the Flames.
Darryl Sutter restricted Huberdeau in his first season in Calgary to the extent that it wouldn’t be crazy for one to assume the coach had zero desire for his player to succeed. How do you have one of the world’s best playmakers showing up to work everyday but proactively choose not to even take a peek inside his toolbox? Ultimately, according to Seravalli on Barn Burner, for the first time in his life, Jonathan Huberdeau lost his entire sense of enjoyment for the game with Sutter as his coach.
Darryl Sutter: an organizational clog
On top of inspiring his players to despise him, there’s plenty of reason to speculate that Sutter was the catalyst for division in other areas of the organization as well, highlighted by what appeared to be a disconnect between the general manager and head coach. If Treliving and Sutter were in alignment, why else would Treliving’s decisions, like recalling Phillips, differ so greatly from Sutter’s?
Even though Treliving signed off on Sutter’s contract extension in October, 2022, Sutter’s connection to Flames’ ownership long predated the GM’s. If hiring and extending Sutter truly were ownership decisions, I can’t imagine Treliving being the most thrilled with his lack of control of the situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Treliving’s decision to leave Calgary – a city he loves – was triggered in part by the disruption Darryl Sutter brought into the organization.
Did Sutter delay Jarome Iginla’s return to the Flames?
I’ll admit it – this is the first topic on which I’m entirely speculating, but is it any coincidence that Jarome Iginla did not take on a role with the Flames until Sutter was dismissed?
Current GM Craig Conroy and Iginla go way back – they’ve been friends for decades, so perhaps Iginla’s role as special advisor to the GM only made sense with Conroy at the head of the table, but maybe (just maybe) we would have welcomed Iginla back sooner had Sutter not been brewing his infamous toxicity stew in the Saddledome.
Enter: The Ryan Huska Era
While only time will tell if the grass really is greener on the other side, it certainly appears that way in the early days: the Flames have a captain in recently extended Mikael Backlund, Lindholm and Hanifin may stick around, the vibes around the team are immaculate, on-ice systems allowing for speed and creativity are being introduced, fans and media are getting meaningful insight from the head coach, and young players have big time opportunities.
As a fan, I’m excited, curious, and cautiously hopeful about the new era of Calgary Flames hockey.
With the utmost respect for Darryl Sutter, I thank him for the 404 games coached and 210 wins, but welcome – with arms wide open (shout-out to Creed) – the next chapter.