Up In Smoke: Autopsying the Calgary Flames

Tim SteinContributor IApril 13, 2010

The knives were out in full force long before the final faceoff. Before the last puck dropped to the Calgary Flames' "lost" season, fans were already heard from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia demanding sweeping changes.
"Fire the Sutters!" "Can Ken King!" "Trade Jarome Iginla for something, anything!"
I can tell you right here, right now: Don't expect the Calgary Flames to make any major moves over the offseason in the above-mentioned vein because it simply will not occur. There will be a few changes and tweaks, and we will have seen the last of some players and personnel, but the coach, general manager and the president are currently safe in their respective jobs.
One can make the argument that the team has classically underachieved since the "run of wonder" back in 2004, and there is validity to this. Losing out in the 1st round of the playoffs will do that to your perspective. But at the same time, the pressure from fans, real or perceived, must have contributed to seeing no continuity nor stability to this team for the better part of a decade.
The team has been basically forced to attempt to adopt new and different systems of play almost every year since 2004. Each coach brings in his own idea of what will work. That's a lot to ask, especially when you go through six coaches in six years.
Greg Gilbert had his system, Al MacNeil had a different one, Darryl Sutter introduced a more defensively-responsible system when he took the reins. Jim Playfair had some kind of tweak to Darryl's system that saw the team basically back into the playoffs in what became a contest with Colorado's Avalanche to see who wanted 9th place first.
And then there was Iron Mike, who brought in...well, nobody was really sure what kind of system he tried to make the players play. Now, after Keenan's krazyness, we have Darryl's little brother Brent. Brent has always preached defensive responsibility—from every member of the team. So tell me, where is the continuity, the stability and security?
As for Ken King being dismissed: Why would you let go the man who was instrumental for not just helping save this franchise and making it viable financially, but opened up further avenues for the team's stability in the city? Simply, you don't. Not everybody is 100 percent successful all the time. One stumble, while not wanted, is not cause for dismissal.
The fact is that King's work over the years for and with the Calgary Flames has rivalled if not exceeded the work done by Cliff Fletcher in the heyday of of this franchise's popularity in the 1980's. You do not just give that the boot.
The moves of Darryl Sutter over the last three seasons has been second-guessed by every single armchair-GM Flames fan after the fact. That is, until "the trade": Dion Phaneuf, the one-man highlight reel (with Fred Sjostrom and Keith Aulie), to Toronto for White, Stajan, Hagman, and Mayers. This trade was hated by upwards of 75 percent of fans, believing that Sutter panicked after January's major slump. The question here is did he though?
Those who see only game highlights have missed all the turnovers and missed coverage caused by the freight train that is Phaneuf. They were numerous and plentiful. In just a handful of games this year alone, he was directly responsible for over 10 goals against. Since the trade, the new guys have combined for a couple dozen points, while Sjostrom and Phaneuf have combined for only a few, literally. How many goals scored against the Leafs thanks to blown defensive coverage and turnovers only Leafs fans know now.
The trade with the New York Rangers was only welcomed by the fact that Ollie Jokinen was involved. This was the player acquired at the trade deadline last year that was raved over by those who are now glad to see him gone. The return in this case hasn't been as productive as the other major trade and can possibly be seen as a basic trade-off, pardon the play on words.
As for being in panic mode, there may be a very slight element of truth to this, but at the same time, something needed to be done. The team needed a shake-up, both to get it out of its slump and as an appeasement to the fans, at least partially. The trades, in my opinion, may have come too late in the season despite the fact that more chemistry was definitely noticeable once the dust settled.
And not to address rumours, but GM Sutter had to do something because of what was called "personality clashes in the dressing room" during yesterday's conference. This indirectly backs up several gossipy bits of info on "cancers" on the team and adds speculation to the mysterious black eye sported by captain Iginla around December.
As of now, we can expect Darryl Sutter to remain at the helm of this particular ship, but plan to see his capacity somewhat diminished, in the form of "assistants." Darryl had had complete control since arriving here, but President King pretty much stated in Monday's press scrum that some of the reins will be taken off the GM's hand.
According to King, the elder Sutter does not have a standard set contract but a deal "in perpetuity" with the organization, thanks mainly to the wonder-run of 2004. How this plays out in the future if the team continues to experience play-off futility remains to be seen, however.
This leaves the coaching staff. Last year, after seasons of loyalty to the staff of assistants, they were let go along with Keenan or reassigned (Playfair to Abbotsford). The main thing this caused was a reduction in goals against, and a Vezina-worthy rebound season for Miika Kiprusoff. Unfortunately this also meant a reduction in goals-for. The organization has plans to address this in the offseason (no mention how, exactly, but it was laid out there).
Brent Sutter was brought in for this season to helm the team, and this was lauded by the very same fans now calling for his head. This is the coach who has had success everywhere he has been: Stanley Cup rings as a player, consecutive gold medals coaching Team Canada at the Worlds, coaching the Red Deer Rebels WHL team to two 50-win seasons, and the NHL's New Jersey Devils to second and first-place finishes in the Atlantic division with a 46-win then 51-win season.
Sutter's defense-first system works—as long as the players buy into it. This past season we have seen what can happen when the team does buy into his coaching: they looked unstoppable. He needs at least one more season leading this team, teaching the players to buy into his formula for winning. No, Brent is safe for one more year.
The continuation of this article will look at the players themselves and address trade rumours and who might or might not be donning the Flaming C in 2010-11. Comments are welcome.