VANCOUVER - JANUARY 7:  Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter argues a call with a referee during their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at General Motors Place on January 7, 2006 in Vancouver, Canada.  The Canucks defeated the Flanes 4-3 in overtime.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

The Calgary Flames were eliminated from playoff contention last night with a loss to the Sharks and an Avalanche win over Vancouver.  There are a couple of games left to play, but their season is for all but over at this point, and that’s prompted criticism of the Sutter-run team.  Darryl Sutter has burned through a series of coaches in his time as general manager: himself, Jim Playfair, Mike Keenan, and now has his brother Brent Sutter in the office.  By the time a manager has gone through that many coaches, it becomes difficult to pass the blame on to them.

Sutter’s had a bold season, but not a good one; moves sending away Olli Jokinen and Dion Phaneuf don’t look so good in retrospect.  Kent Wilson put it this way:

There’s been injuries to some useful players down the stretch here (Glencross, Higgins and Langkow), but that’s not enough to explain the degree to which the team has failed to control the puck since they returned from the break. My view isn’t toward the post-season, which I consider irrelevant at this point, but to next year since this roster is all but locked up heading into 2010-2011. The fact that the organization has managed to up it’s cap commitment in the final quarter of the season and somehow get worse is, I think, a fairly powerful indictment of some of the decision makers.

 

Wilson certainly isn’t alone in that assessment, and the fallout has already started – both in the blogosphere (actually it’s been going for a while there) and in the mainstream media.  George Johnson of the Calgary Herald was damning in his assessment of Sutter’s work running the team:

Darryl Sutter’s blueprint has clearly failed. Spectacularly. With Iginla looking jaded, stale and fully deserving of a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup before he’s done, he’s better-than-even-money to be moved this off-season. Meaning the grand plan concocted following the unexpected, inspirational playoff run of 2004 has come to nothing. The time has arrived to blow it up and start afresh.

After four coaching changes in five seasons, a continuing alteration of the supporting cast, the salary cap maxed out and a lot of middling talent signed to long-term deals, this is Sutter’s mess.

The GM should be squarely in the cross-hairs.

What had seemed so promising in the summer turned so sour. They snared their coach of choice, Brent Sutter, under controversial – some might imply underhanded – circumstances. Signed the plumb free-agent defenceman, Bouwmeester, on the market for major bucks. Promised an already doubting public that, after four consecutive first-round playoff pratfalls, this year would be different.

Instead, it wound up being worse.

 

Johnson has support.  Tim Wharnsby suggests that it may be time for “wholesale changes” in the front office.  Eric Duhatschek is predicting an organizational review by ownership.  Damien Cox was vicious in his take on Sutter and his trades this season, and expects “major repercussions”.

It’s not surprising to see such attacks in the press; Sutter has seemingly gone out of his way to belittle and alienate the men who cover his team during his time in Calgary, but it isn’t entirely undeserved, either.  The Flames have fallen away from the team they have were when Sutter first took over, right before the lockout.  To recap, here’s what they’ve done since he became general manager in 2003-04.  Results from 2009-10 aren’t complete yet, naturally:

Season Points Goal Diff. Playoff Results
2003-04 94 +24 Lost in Finals
2005-06 103 +18 Lost in Round 1
2006-07 96 +32 Lost in Round 1
2007-08 94 +2 Lost in Round 1
2008-09 98 +6 Lost in Round 1
2009-10 89* -1* Missed Playoffs

 

To be sure, there are some impressive results there, and if this were the spring of 2007 we wouldn’t be describing Sutter as on the bubble.  Sutter fired Playfair at the end of 2007 and installed Keenan, but unless Keenan had a Miikka Kiprusoff voodoo doll somewhere it probably isn’t fair to blame him for the drop-off in goal differential those years; those two seasons Kiprusoff was not himself, managing a 0.906 and 0.903 SV% (he’s rebounded to 0.920 this season).

This season is disappointing because it had so much potential.  Kiprusoff returned to form, Sutter had his preferred head coach (his brother) and was able to pull off not one but two blockbuster trades.  Despite that, the Flames have hit their lowest ebb since he took over as G.M.

Sutter’s a fairly smart hockey man, despite his unfortunate demeanour and the team’s failings this season.  But he’s consistently made crucial mistakes and as a result the team has gotten worse, little bits at a time until this season.  This isn’t a team that needs to be blown up and re-started, but it probably does need a different man at the top – a man less willing to scapegoat his coaches and more willing to address the issues on the roster.

That said, Sutter’s going to get another hockey job.  This would have been a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and while there are more than a few warts (the Staios and Toskala trades, for example) as a whole his body of work is impressive.  But it’s time for a different direction in Calgary.