Thus far I’ve discussed the nature of Darryl’s rise to the top of the organization and enshrinement as hockey czar without really delving into his management methods. As the Flames front office became a Sutterarian hall of mirrors, Darryl was free to repeatedly indulge his rather idiosyncratic player acquisition and evaluation habits year-after-year.
In June 2008, I was investigating the effect of experience on wins and stumbled on the shorthand concept of “cowbells”:
There’s a famous SNL skit about the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, featuring Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell. In it, Walken plays producer Bruce Dickinson who “has a fever for the cowbell”… the underlying joke the skit is predicated upon is Dickinson’s (Walken’s) manic and nonsensical obsession with the cowbell, which is a relatively inconsequential aspect of the track.
In a way, I think a lot of fans and even coaches or GM’s have their own “cowbells”: those factors they foreground and elevate above and beyond their true values.
Sutter’s management repertoire was replete with unique cowbells. Like most rules of thumb, they served Sutter well in some instances and led him astray in others. In fact, Darryl’s penchant for undermining his good moves with poor ones during his tenure led me to coin another short-hand concept – “The Sutter Equilibrium”.
The Price of Experience
What is sometimes overlooked in the aftermath of his reign is that Sutter was a neophyte GM when he took the position and was still learning the basics during the paradigmatic shifts of the post-lock-out CBA. Like a lot of of his cohorts since the work stoppage, Sutter’s perception of risk and efficiency didn’t shift sufficiently to match the economics of a cap system and he stepped on a few landmines along the way. A primary source of such missteps was his consistent preference for experience over youth.
It’s no secret that Sutter was a great respecter of resumes. Darryl routinely sought out experienced players to plug roster holes. This in itself is neither irrational nor confined to Darryl alone. Managerial preferences skew towards the experienced in the NHL (or just about any endeavor you can name) because it’s generally sensible. Veterans have proven they are capable of playing in the league to one degree or another. Rookies, prospects and unknown vets from other leagues haven’t. This fact comes with the concurrent assurances that a veteran player will be able to appropriately withstand the various rigours of the NHL – traveling, practicing, media attention, etc. Acquiring a “fully vetted” skater means reduced risk in terms of variance of performance, production, etc, because the manager essentially knows what he’s getting.
The guarantee comes with a cost, of course, like paying for name-brand items at the grocery store over the no-name stuff. Particularly in the NHL where entry-level deals are artificially capped (850k + bonuses for first three seasons). A rookies ELC is therefore the richest source of potential value. Unfortunately, the only youngster the Flames were able to fully leverage during Sutter’s seven years was Dion Phaneuf, who despite his various failings grossly outperformed his entry level deal during his time in Calgary.
Aside from the former ninth overall pick, Sutter treated prospect promotion with a sort of guarded reluctance. In part because the franchise simply did not possess many obvious, high-end talents in the organizational pipeline. However, even when the rare kid would poke his head above ground, Sutter habitually stacked obstacles in the way of his emergence. Perhaps the most well-known example of which is the tale of Mark Giordano.
An undrafted free-agent signing, Giordano spent a couple seasons in the Flames farm system, including 2005-06 when he led the Omaha Knights in scoring with 16 goals and 58 points in 70 games. Giordano made the Flames on a semi-full time basis the next season and compiled noteworthy counting and underlying numbers in 48 games. He also showcased the various skills that make him a fan favorite currently: high-end mobility, puck-moving and offensive awareness.
During the ensuing off-season, Sutter battled with the restricted free agent over a new contract, still apparently unconvinced Giordano was an everyday NHLer. He offered the defender a two-way deal and was adamant on that stipulation. Giordano balked and in the meantime Sutter signed the historically mediocre but relatively expensive Anders Eriksson instead. The Eriksson signing meant a full compliment of players on the Flames back-end, so Giordano bolted to Russia in response.
Eriksson, of course, turned out to be a train-wreck. His $1.5M salary would end up buried in the minors a year later, but the opportunity cost to the organization was a lost season of a cheaper, better player. Eriksson made nearly twice what Giordano inevitably signed for on his return, but was also on the wrong side of his career arc. The obvious corollary of paying guys for what they’ve accomplished in the past is that the the pricetag likely includes a peak that has already come and gone.
This pattern played itself out more than once over the years, although not quite so dramatically. During the same off-season as the Giordano fiasco, the Flames only (and last) Russian prospect Andrei Taratukhin fled back home after co-leading the Omaha Knights in scoring with 17 goals and 60 points in 60 games. When asked in an interview why he left, Taratukhin specifically cited a perceived lack of opportunity in the organization:
In Calgary there are now five key centers with the one-way contracts, and then me – on a two way contract. It could be assumed that the guys on one way deal would be more likely to be chosen for the team.
Three of the one-way contracts stacked ahead of Taratukhin were Wayne Primeau ($1.4M per year/3 years), Marcus Nilson ($1M per year/2 years) and Mark Smith ($487M/one year). All three were signed that same summer and the first two were mistakes the minute the ink was dry on their contracts. Primeau and Nilsson were veterans, but also middling player with years of near-replacement level performance under their belts. None of them remain in the NHL currently. Mark Smith faded into obscurity*, Nilson’s contract was “loaned” to to the KHL in ’08-09 and Primeau was dealt in a salary dump that cost the Flames their second round choice in the upcoming entry draft. All were bad bets to provide good value at their dollar figures.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Taratukhin, who has been making a living as competent KHLer ever since, would have been an adequate NHLer himself. The situation is illustrative of Sutter’s decision-making calculus, though: when in doubt, go veteran. And although it’s sensible heuristic on it’s face, the experience bias comes with clear costs and risks of it’s own.
*Smith was signed late in the off-season, effectively bumping the only rookie to apparently make the line-up out of camp – 25 year old Warren Peters – back to the farm.
Six Degrees of Sutter
“Actually, the reaction has been really, really positive…from people who are important.”
- Darryl Sutter July 2010, when asked about re-signing Olli Jokinen
Sutter’s esteem for battle-tested players wasn’t indiscriminant. His acquisition habits were guided by other preferences as well.
In accord with his penchant for surrounding himself with family and friends in the organization, Sutter also liked to seek out former “Sutter” players – be it guys who played under him at some point or with/for one of his brothers. Seemingly odd or low-reward gambles were frequently explained by fans via a quick game of “six degree of Darryl Sutter”. Consider this list of acquisitions:
- Rhett Warrener, Marcus Nilson, Kristian Huselius, Byron Ritchie, Brad Ference, Anders Eriksson, Niklas Hagman, Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester (played under Duane Sutter in Florida)
- Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen (played under Brian Sutter in Chicago)
- Shean Donovan*, Mark Smith, Jeff Friesen, Andrei Zyuzin, Brad Stuart, Bryan Marchment, Miikka Kiprusoff, Owen Nolan, Wayne Primeau, Vesa Toskala (played under Darryl in San Jose)
- Tony Amonte (played under Darryl in Chicago)
- Daymond Langkow, Jamie Lundmark, Brian Boucher, Brian McGrattan, Nigel Dawes, Freddy Sjostrom, Curtis Joseph, MIke Leclerc, Cale Hulse (played for Phoenix with Rich Sutter as a scout)
- Jim Vandermeer (played under Brent Sutter in Red Deer)
- Jordan Leopold, Craig Conroy, Jamie Lundmark, Olli Jokinen, Brandon Prust, Jamie McLennan (played under Darryl in Calgary)
*Donovan was technically acquired by Button at the end of 2002-03, but it’s generally known he was grabbed at Sutter’s behest.
It’s a safe bet that no GM in recent memory recycled players as avidly as Darryl Sutter. In total, 38 of his trades and free agent signings over seven years were former Sutter players in one capacity or another, with almost half that number (18) playing directly under Darryl himself at some point (be it in Chicago, San Jose or Calgary).
To be fair, it’s sensible that Sutter would lean on familial affiliations to guide his early decisions. As mentioned, Darryl was new to the position when he ascended to the big chair in 2003-04 and the Flames were low on dollars and desperate for NHL-quality players. Sutter exploited his connections to certain players via his prior coaching days and those of brother Duane to grab what was available cheaply. What’s more, it worked. Within his first two seasons, Sutter snagged Nilson, Warrener, Huselius, Ritchie, Amonte, Langkow, Simon, Nieminen, Donovan, Kiprusoff and Bryan Marchment and the team experienced the most success it’s seen in a decade. The correlation of winning to recycling players is probably what cemented this particular Sutter habit going forward. In the unfamiliarity of his new position, Darryl stuck with what he knew during his first few uncertain steps and then was conditioned via rather strong reinforcement to equate the strategy with inevitable success. He essentially came to regard what he – or one of his brothers – had known or liked in the past as a sure-fire indication of quality. In Darryl’s head it was an apparent coronation of Sutter family preferences.
Conditioning of that sort, especially when combined with confirmation bias and an environment of endless Sutter positive feedback loops, is rather difficult to extinguish. Any subsequent failures of this model would likely have been dismissed as mere aberrations; exceptions to the rule.
Western Canada and the Draft
It’s clear by now that Darryl preferred the familiar. A subset of that bias was his predilection for signing, trading for or drafting players from Canada – particularly Western Canada. A native of Viking Alberta, Sutter seemed intent on collecting guys who were either born or groomed in his back yard as often as possible.
Nowhere was this propensity more acutely reflected than in the Flames draft record during his time here.
The above tables shows the countries of origin from which the Flames were selecting for the three years prior to Darryl taking over as GM. Calgary clearly liked to spread things out pre-Sutter, with North American and European selections almost split right down the middle.
This table shows the abrupt about-face by the organization once Darryl took the reins. The NHL in general moved away from picking from a number of Eastern European nations post-lock-out thanks to the lack of a transfer agreement as well as the growing pull of the KHL for Russian players, so that is likely part of the reason the Flames Euro picks took a nose-dive.
Still, the total lack of Russian, Czech and Slovakian players is glaring. In contrast, a full 67% of Flames picks over this span were Canadian born. From 2003-2010, 781 of the 1498 total draft picks were from Canada, or 52%, so the Flames were well above the league average in this regard.
Of course, Sutter’s gaze wasn’t so diffuse as to settle on the whole of Canada. No, his focus was far more narrow and often concentrated on what he and his family knew best: the Western Hockey League.
Of Calgary’s 58 picks since 2003, a full 25 of them were from the WHL (43%), with the Ontario Hockey league coming a distant second (19%). More than 60% of Sutter’s picks came from these two leagues alone over a span of eight drafts.
The implication here is not necessarily that Darryl Sutter was some sort of rabid xenophobe, dismissing players from other leagues and cultures out-of-hand due to some prejudicial mistrust. Like his interests in veterans in “Sutter” players, Darryl’s WHL fetish has some roots in reality. A highly competitive junior league, the WHL does happen to produce a number of solid-to-star quality players every year. CHL players also tend to play many more games against highly competent opposition than, say, comparably aged guys in College. In addition, it could be assumed that players from Western Canada would be more comfortable in familiar surroundings, making them more amenable to sticking around once they were acquired. As a rule of thumb, Sutter fishing in his own back yard wasn’t wholly irrational.
Unfortunately, the problem with rules-of-thumb, or heuristics, is that they can easily lead one astray if they solidify into dogma. This is because the assumptions or premises that underpin a heuristic may not be universally applicable, even if they are generally sound. Consider Sutter’s experience heuristic for example: veteran players have proven to be NHL ready and more likely to be capable contributors to the team. On the other hand, veterans are also relatively expensive and are often on the downside of their career arc, meaning they are paid more for past performance than future contributions. As such, while preferring veterans can be said to be a good rule-of-thumb, it’s entirely possible that in certain circumstances the experienced player represents the bigger risk or poorer value, all things considered. Mark Giordano versus Anders Eriksson is a stark illustration.
Sutter stuck with what he knew upon taking the throne in Calgary and it resulted in unprecedented success. The effect was the establishment of a sort of path dependence where said heuristics were substituted for principles, amplified via the organizational echo chamber and subsequently pursued when they were either inefficient or irrational.