Sutter got the Flames into the playoffs the next year and that team scratched and clawed their way through 26 playoff games, finally losing a seven game series in the Stanley Cup finals to the champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
That team featured a few young stars, Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, leading the way. Robyn Regehr lead the defense. He was a 23-year-old who had come over in the Theoren Fleury deal. He was then in his fifth season playing in Calgary.
The rest of the team might charitably have been called role players. Management rewarded what they saw as the talented core and treated the role players like interchangeable cogs. Martin Gelinas, Jason Weimar, Steve Reinprecht out; Daymond Langkow, Kristian Huselius, Cale Hulse, in. Each year a new set of role players would be seen.
Sutter also saw his team as a mere step or two away from a cup. Based on the 2003/04 experience it was arguably so. Ever year saw the addition of the player who was supposed to boost the offense or the defense and make the Flames the team who could win a cup.
Whether it was Huselius or Tanguay or Cammallerri or Bouwmeester or Jokinen, every year saw the addition of that one piece of the puzzle that Sutter was sure would make his team the best in the league.
Unfortunately to an impartial observer it seemed that the 2003-04 team was one fueled by a chemistry that is hard to duplicate when the GM is constantly exchanging parts.
That Calgary Flames team wasn’t exceptionally talented but they played an aggressive physical style of defense that came to be called interference or hooking or slashing or cross-checking in the new offense happy, kinder gentler, post lock-out NHL. Sutter’s vision of the perfect NHL defenseman was no longer NHL-compliant.
Darryl Sutter though never got anywhere in the NHL by being pliant and flexible. His success depended on the unswerving working towards a goal. He had an idea how the Flames could win a cup. He’d almost seen it proven in 2003/04 and he was unwilling to let that vision go.
Year after year Sutter moved his pieces around, always spending to the cap limit, almost always sacrificing youth for veterans. When his first, first round pick, Dion Phanuef came into the NHL and scored 20 Sutter quickly locked him up with an expensive long term contract.
At some point, though, it became a question of shuffling the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The Flames had a finite amount of talent and for each $2.5 million worth of talent they added they had to cut loose $2.5 million worth of talent. The team physically couldn’t get any better.
There were a variety of obvious team needs that were never addressed because the Flames never seemed to have the extra pay-roll space to address them. Vesa Toskala was the first semi-legitimate back-up goalie brought in during Sutter’s regime to try to take the load off of Miikka Kiprusoff.
The first real first line center the Flames ever brought in to try to help out Jarome Iginla was Olli Jokinen though I guess Daymond Langkow also represented a bit of an attempt to fill that hole. Iginla was always expected to provide offense on his own and his virtue was that he mostly succeeded.
Those moves came a little late in the day for Sutter and the Flames and year by year as they added veterans and their talented core got older the window of opportunity shrank. Last year Calgary gave up Lombardi and a first round draft pick to get Olli Jokinen. They currently have Alex Kotalik under contract to show for all they gave away to get Jokinen.
Sutter and this iteration of the Flames have missed the playoffs. Despite Miikka Kiprusoff having a top 10 year—.922 sv pct (seventh), 35 W (ninth), 2.25 GAA (fourth), 4 SO (12th), 4192 minutes (third)—they’re likely to finish ninth in the west. The team scored fewer goals than they gave up and the 201 they have now is second worst in the league ahead only of the Boston Bruins at 198.
Jarome Iginla’s best years have been squandered. At 33 you can expect to see a steady decline in this power forward’s statistics. At best he might maintain the offense he provides now.
By trading Jokinen whose contract was expiring for Kotalik’s $3 million contract and by resigning Matt Stajan long term for $3.5 million a year Sutter has given away any cap flexibility he had created by dealing Phaneuf.
If he had simply left Jokinen to play out the string in Calgary he would have created almost seven million in cap space when considering this and the Phaneuf deal together. Now Sutter or whoever takes over for him has a poor offensive team with aging stars. They also have no cap room to add players to change the team dynamic.
They’ve got no young offensively talented players coming up to provide offense cheap and that’s the only type of offense the Flames can afford. Greg Nemisz their next best prospect after Backlund is consistently rated as too slow for the pro-game.
If you include Mikael Backlund as a full time starter next year the Flames have 54 million in salary dedicated to eighteen roster spots. This is before they sign their current best offensive defenseman Ian White.
This is without signing a back-up goalie. This is without having skilled young checker Eric Nystrom under contract. This is also without Chris Higgins or Jamal Mayers or Craig Conroy. Even if they let the majority of these players sign elsewhere there’s no big pool of money to get the sniper or two needed to get the Flames back to the middle of the pack of offensive respectability.
Sutter has driven his team into a dead-end and there doesn’t seem any easy way to get out. His heart was pure, his vision clear and his motives good, yet here we are. Backlund is the only legitimate offensive potential they have coming up from the minors and he hasn’t proven himself yet.
Bouwmeester and Langkow can’t have the horrible offensive years they had this year but aside from them there doesn’t look to be a lot of offensive growth from inside the Flame’s locker room.
There’s no first round draft pick this year to plan around. This aging Calgary team looks to be years in the rebuilding. A Miikka Kiprusoff and a Jarome Iginla and a few role players may still drag this group into the playoffs on occasion but without more, deeper talent this team is going nowhere. By the time a rebuild is finished Iginla and Kiprusoff will be at the end of their careers.
It’s a shame because six short years ago it looked like the Flames had one of the brightest futures in the NHL. Now it looks like a different set of managers with a different rebuilding plan need to be brought on board. Ken King and the Sutters probably need to be sent elsewhere if the Flames are ever going to be able to progress again.