Calgary Flames Check-Up: Sutter Steps In, Slumping Flames Feel The Heat

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst INovember 3, 2009

CALGARY, CANADA - OCTOBER 31:   Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings checks Mark Giordano #5 the Calgary Flames on October 31st, 2009 at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

The Calgary Flames landed flat to finish off their recent five-game home stand with a pair of back-flops on Pengrowth Saddledome ice.  This ostensibly talented team needs to tighten up if they want to avoid progressing to belly-flops, evermore painful and embarrassing.


This particular edition of Flames analysis is going to be a short one, for two very good reasons.

Firstly, I’m sick.  Second, I’m tired of typing the word “consistency”.  Sick and tired.

Bugs and snakes—they both bite

Fans are happy that the virulent ‘flu bug striking living rooms and locker rooms alike hasn’t [reportedly] ravaged the Flames like it has others, but worry at an ailing record and jaundiced performances persist. 

Personally, I watched Wednesday night’s tilt against the Colorado Avalanche feeling as lopsided as the stat sheet, which leaned in Calgary’s direction in every way but the score.  Saturday’s Halloween 3-1 fright-fest failure versus Detroit saw none of the media-predicted punch-ups, but after forty I felt like my number had been taken by every bruiser on the ice.     

A few days earlier, the well-rested Calgary Flames were in a fantastic position to validate their position as a top-rated team.  Opportunities arose to make a mark on the Northwest Division, take advantage of games-in-hand over close-following rivals, record a dominant home record, and pack away extra baggage before hitting the road for their first proper taste of the jam-packed schedule.  By the end of the week, the Canucks sat a point ahead in seventh place, the Flames were being chased for eighth by the Oilers, and I was looking for new and exciting places to vomit.

Is it coincidence that I started feeling so poorly the night Calgary dropped an important divisional contest, or that symptoms seemed to get worse as Saturday’s regressive collapse played out in front of me?

Of course it’s coincidence!  Let’s not be ridiculous—I just like to indulge the superstitious hockey freak in me every now and then.  

Neither I nor the Flames were as bad as all that, nothing terminal or permanently debilitating.  But that doesn’t stop an over-reactive tailspin when it’s painfully obvious, despite best intentions, that they are not performing at their best.

At the moment, the Calgary Flames have at least four contenders for Team Canada’s entry at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics: Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, and Jay Bouwmeester.  Each of these is under the microscope, watched closely by a city of expectant fans and a nation of rabid critics.  While the defensemen hold their own, Rene Bourque’s team-leading numbers and premature discussion of Olympic considerations give rise to deeper-than-usual scrutiny of Calgary’s offensive stars and their performance this year.

Time to get well

It’s way too early in the season to feel like I’m repeating myself.  Flames head coach Brent Sutter obviously feels the same—Calgary post-game media scrums have been less than warm lately, Sutter baulking at being forced to call out some of his best men before October was even over.

The message?  Calgary’s elite and experienced players need to step it up, whether that means scoring more goals, assists, or simply increasing the regularity of game-changing performances.   

Complaints that the Calgary Flames rely too heavily on secondary scoring are absurd this soon in the season.  Building and developing a well-rounded, multi-dimensional team with steady contribution from all players is one of the most enviable achievements in sports.  This isn’t the grievance.  At the moment, all eyes are on big guns like Iginla, Olli Jokinen, and Miikka Kiprusoff to meet reasonable expectations and bring their numbers up to standard to deliver the core strength they are there to provide.   

It’s not the first time Iginla et al. have taken their time out of the gate.  It has been made clear, however, that slow starts will not be tolerated this time around.  The situation must be remedied, and repairs can be more easily made if underlying issues are fully understood.

So what’s going on?  Over the past few weeks, this matter has been argued and discussed at length around the hockey circuit.  

One credible possibility is the reversion in coaching style.  While Calgary’s star members have been largely left to their own devices in recent seasons, head coach Brent Sutter is well renowned for the strict and egalitarian expectations of his methods.  Younger, more coachable players are eagerly taking advantage of a system which gives them space to perform, an opportunity already reaping riches for less-experienced skaters in Calgary’s ranks.  On the other hand, the arrival of new expectations and hewn-in-stone structure is a new obstacle for marquee types accustomed to creating tether-free ice of their own accord.  Their niche is being redecorated.

Comments by Hockey Night In Canada's Kevin Weekes last Saturday lend credance to these suspicions.  As a former Devil backup under Brent Sutter in New Jersey, Weekes knows his concrete system first-hand, and aptly described the struggles of high-calibre skaters under seemingly-stringent conditions.  Fortunately for Calgary, if this is the cause of their scoring strife, it‘s a soluble problem.  Many of their members also have previous Sutter experience of some type, and once comfortable within the new routine and reacquainted with heightened discipline, most Flames are talented and professional enough to thrive within any system.

As for the present, Calgary already has points from all but two of their skaters, and only four men remain without a goal.  These numbers include Aaron Johnson and Jason Jaffray, youngsters who have played just three games combined.

This leaves just two regulars sans a marker, and none sit pointless. No other Northwest Division team comes close in terms of spreading the points around their roster, a great advantage for the Flames as the season progresses and their scorers get on track.  The defensive corps have been recording good stats, and there is no reason to expect experienced players up front will do anything but improve their play.  

Once the dreaded “consistency” word disappears as an issue, there can be plenty of optimism about the long-term chances of the Calgary Flames.  

Chin up, boys—It’s a matter of perspective!

A quote on the Calgary Flames website has Jarome Iginla responding to criticism by addressing the positives the team has thus far achieved, while also attempting placate media concerns by adding, “I think guys are working to get better and we know Brent’s talked about [that],” and ending with the comment, “We need to get better and we think we’re capable of that.”

Think?   I know I’m being pedantic, taking Iginla’s wording too literally.  However, as a statement of assurance and recognition of the underachievement of star skaters to this point, it doesn’t relay confidence, or even pragmatism, as well as it should. 

The Flames captain may be right when he says, “As a team, it’s been a solid month.  We’re still making adjustments.”  Calgary has done quite well in some areas, improved on others, and have direction to help them get even better. 

But coaches want to hear statements of progressive intent and result, not just hope and reflection; they also want to see those intentions realized, night after night.  

The Flames have a roster in which there should be no doubt—perfectly clear to objective observers— this club hasn’t come close to reaching their potential.  They may recognise this, but it’s time to embody that promise and find confidence in consistency.

“Guys are working to get better…and we know we’re capable of that.”

Hit the highway, and hit it hard

So far, the Flames have had it relatively easy, logging very few air miles and avoiding extra wear-and-tear with plenty of time off between games.  Having been told by their coach to shape up, the Flames ship out for back-to-back away games in Dallas and St. Louis midweek.  They then head home for a single on Saturday, before getting back on the road for the rest of the week—three games between 10-14 November, with another two-in-a-row set capping off the road trip.  

Steve Ott will likely be skating for the Stars Wednesday night, setting him loose to get under the skin of Jarome Iginla—exactly the type of thing which could wake the Calgary captain and his cohorts up.  Still holding games-in-hand over all four Northwest rivals, the Flames hope to hit their stride as they are flung head-first into the full-speed pace of the 2009-10 NHL schedule.

Make hay while the sun shines, and all that.  

Calgary Flames Schedule (MST), 1-14 November 2009

Wed, 4 Nov 2009      @ Dallas Stars — 6:30 p.m., TSN     
Thu, 5 Nov 2009     @ St Louis Blues — 6:30 p.m.,     
Sat, 7 Nov 2009     vs. New York Rangers — 8:00 p.m., CBC
Tue, 10 Nov 2009     @ Montreal Canadiens — 5:30 p.m., RDS, SNET-W     
Fri, 13 Nov 2009     @ Buffalo Sabres — 5:30 p.m., SNET-W    
Sat, 14 Nov 2009     @ Toronto Maple Leafs — 5:00 p.m., CBC, NHLN-US

All games also broadcast on The FAN 960 and .  For more information, check out the Calgary Flames Official Web Site or