Shakin' Heads: Calgary Flames, Their Coaching Staff, and a Lump Of Coal

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IDecember 20, 2009

CALGARY, CANADA - OCTOBER 28:  Head Coach Brent Sutter of the Calgary Flames instructs his players during a break in game action against the Colorado Avalanche on October 28, 2009 at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  The Avalanche defeated the Flames 3-2. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images

A picture can be worth a thousand words, and this one is becoming familiar.  The Calgary Flames coaching staff has been drilling their message of methodology to a captive audience—but is it a receptive audience?  Head coach Brent Sutter (centre) hides any latent exasperation as he directs his skaters following an error-filled effort.  Meanwhile, assistant Ryan McGill (right) looks ready to address the supporting cast, and cut out of frame, fellow assistant coach Dave Lowry (left) has his arm outstretched, demonstrating the play being described by Boss Brent.

Rather than the usual litany of statistics, references, and analysis, this article represents a pure, simple statement.

It echoes the comments of Calgary Flames coaching staff after incomplete efforts from the team, win or lose.  It betrays the silhouette of coach Brent Sutter and his staff, collectively shaking their heads as they watch solid foundations crumple unexpectedly on the ice before them.

Behind the bench and between the lines, Calgary’s coaching team are trying to get their message across.  It’s a sentiment which will change little, regardless of how impressive the record sheets seem, until Brent and his buds feel they have captivated the hearts and minds of the entire Flames crew.

While the public is [largely] in the dark about comments made behind the scenes, the general attitude has been vocalised in the typically to-the-point Sutter & Co. style through sound-bites and post-game media scrums. 

Recently, after a frame in which Calgary had been outplayed, Rogers Sportsnet correspondent Roger Millions asked Flames assistant coach Ryan McGill if the team should alter their strategy mid-game, or if they needed to persist. 

With no hesitation, the response was brief, but said much.  Opposition had been scouted, plans laid, there was nothing wrong with the strategy—but to produce results, the team‘s tactics needed to be more than just executed, they needed to be executed to completion.

In other words, the map to victory is accurate—it just isn’t being followed properly. 

Those skating along the prescribed path have been pulled off track by those gone walkabout.  The coaches have made their view of the situation clear.  For all the best intentions, individuals have been thinking for themselves more than team players should, smudging the details and broad strokes of the big picture.  The result is a colourful but spotty portrait of an undistinguished icon. 

Creative players and independent ideas are required for success in the fastest game on Earth, but in a team sport, the individuals must recognise the rationale of a reciprocal system which allows every man to thrive.  Coaches appreciate the diversity of initiative of the 20-plus players who make up a hockey depth-chart—true appreciation develops when skaters in the ranks realise that collective benefit creates individual opportunity, and learn to capitalise on both. 

All for one, one for all.

The impact of such a format—or lack thereof—may be evidenced by recent seasons, when the Calgary Flames have shown flashes of brilliance and recorded credible annual totals, yet suffered the stresses of fluctuating results—a carousel of confidence and concern, hallmarked by needless uncertainty. 

Punctuated by steep peaks and valleys, late versions of the Flames have witnessed turnstile techniques and rudderless direction, dogged by the spectre of unfulfilled possibility. 

Exceptional individual accomplishments have meant little as the club dabbled in doubt each time a season wound down, forced to work harder than their team talent suggested in search of division titles, favourable playoff seedings, and of course, the Stanley Cup.

These are among the reasons for the near-wholesale changes to Calgary’s coaching register over the summer of 2009. 

Brent Sutter was brought in from the notoriously disciplined New Jersey Devils.  His presence was complimented by the hiring of a technically sound, structurally-minded posse of assistants: McGill was moved from the Flames development squad and AHL affiliate, where he had served as head coach for four years; Dave Lowry got a double-bump, up from the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen where he had been an assistant/associate; Jamie McLennan—former Flames goalie, pro scout, and development coach—also got the nod; and Rob Cookson, whose status as the sole returning coach reflects his systemically sturdy offerings.

There is little debate that the Calgary Flames are one of the better teams in the NHL this season.  There are already numerous score sheets and stat columns which illustrate their achievements, plus regular highlight shots of Flaming C sweaters reeled out in the hockey media. 

The issue which causes a sliver of doubt to remain is the same thing which allows collective manes to continue shaking.  Forgetting for a moment specific statistical numbers—impressive or otherwise—it is clear to those who have watched this edition of the Calgary Flames that despite many solid performances, this team has yet to play their best hockey. 

It is an elite club, but the team’s top potential hasn’t been fully reached.  Considering the many dominant efforts already displayed by the roster and various individual players, this can be construed as somewhat good news.  As well as they‘ve performed, no one will complain if they elevate their game even further—except the competition.  What concerns the coaching staff is the road still to travel en route to meet the expectation of greater accomplishment.    

Their eyes are tired from constantly rolling to the ceiling, or just for a change of pace, to the loogie-laden floor.  But there aren’t many solutions down there.

Heads up to the time and shot clocks is the habit of the hockey tactician.  Coaches seek information with which to plan the next move—they do not want to see more questions when they look around for answers.  Concern over a few remaining seconds is a mark of caution; true worry shouldn’t have any domain over teams as talented as the Calgary Flames.

Watch the coaching department members after a Flames game, as everyone files off the bench and down the tunnel. 

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A loss brings daggered looks, while a rout drains to blank expressions—probably the result of the nerve-wracking search for an industrial-strength earwax remover. 

An average or unbalanced victory may elicit little reaction from the already-stoic Southern Alberta bunch.

It is only after a well-rounded outing that there is a sense of satisfaction emanating from behind the Flames bench. The constituent members shake hands, laconically expressing the satisfaction of a plan borne to fruition through a group effort.  The Calgary coaching team clearly believes that the foundation they have laid is sound, and when the pieces fall into place there is a definite aura of long-expected payoff earned through focused endeavour.

In any case, silence prevails until they are down the hall.  Enough has been said already; the resonant echo of methodology hovers, omnipresent, quietly implying the rest.

Right now, there are varying levels of dissatisfaction with anything other than comprehensive efforts across the board.  There have already been strides forward, and kudos have been just as evident as criticism. 

There is much praise to be rightly showered on the Flames, but coach Sutter still needs his players to notice what is obvious to the rest of the hockey world.  Everyone knows that Calgary’s 2009-10 entry is already very good—equally understood is the concept that they could be even better.  Analysts and opponents alike wonder how much more dangerous the Flames might become, or if the fire-breathing dragon will lay dormant for another year. 

Perhaps expectations are in need of a slight retooling, but Sutter et al. will continue to spread the idea of a blanket approach to responsible play.  The coaches are unlikely to let up on their relentless reminders about follow-through and commitment—the last thing the system needs now is wavering leadership.  If the message gives out or remains unheeded, if they cannot get it together, it would be a tragic waste of resources.  With such a complete roster, now is the time to act.

In fact, “now” has been the time to act since the 2005 lockout.  There has been a four-year grace period which the Flames presumably spent becoming accustomed to their increasing talent pool and heightened profile.  But such assets will not be on hand indefinitely—especially if they carry on in the also-ran category. 

The sooner the franchise can lock down a winning formula, the easier it will be to secure and retain a winning tradition as the years roll on.

Details, analysis, and legitimacy can all be discussed at a later date, justified and verified by the stacks of empirical data available to dissect.  Analysis of the specifics, such as Calgary’s current coaching team, previous bench-boss incarnations, differing strategies and their eventual results can wait until after the New Year, when everyone is plump, rested and content—the perfect time to be slapped in the face with cold, hard facts, whatever those may be.

Win, lose, or draw, the general statement put forth by the Calgary Flames directing team can be read in context until that time when they get what they want on a regular basis.

Try fitting that under a gaudily-decorated fir.

The greatest gift the Flames can give themselves this season is to make the most of their advantages, utilising the brains as well as the brawn at their disposal.  Otherwise, opposing NHL squads will be the ones granted a giant favour. 

Happy Holidays from the Harvey the Hound.

Eight nights, twelve days, both very different in ideology from 82 games.  Though they both require selflessness, the spirit of giving unto others is less than desirable in the stingy world of puck. 

The only intraleague sharing that should take place is between team mates.  If players are feeling charitable, tidily-wrapped body checks and ribbon-string goals are the exception.

Hopefully the Calgary club can distinguish between these incredibly separate versions of generosity.  Sort-term winter trinkets and distractions may come at the long-term price of the most coveted present of all—the one given out in June.

M MacDonald Hall is a Calgary Flames Featured Columnist, covering hockey ins-and-outs for B|R and syndication.

Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to Mac's Bleacher Report profile or email .

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