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Calgary Flames and Brent Sutter at the Quarter Pole

A fourth of the season has passed and rather than break out the player evaluations we here at M&G figured it would make sense to take a closer look at perhaps this off-seasons most important addition: head coach Brent Sutter. The club has suffered through a rotation of bench bosses of various stripes and quality the last 5 years, so it's safe to say that when Sutter pried Sutter from the swamp, the organization was deciding to end the carousel ride.

That's all a very complicated way to say: Brent is here to stay. Meaning it's probably more important to grade his performance than any individual skater.

1.) Lots of talk about Sutter bringing more "structure" and "accountability" to the team when he replaced Keenan. Personally, I don't see a sizable difference between the two coaches, although Sutter does seem more fiery and willing to call the players out in the media (including stars). Impressions?

R O: Funny how a little good PR goes, eh? Even I didn't like how Keenan sometimes worked the media to his advantage (the slagging of Gio was unnecessary, the lack of support behind Tanguay perplexing). Sutter is a bit better in that regard, but not much. He's cantankerous, but at the same time is a bit more abstract though, he doesn't name names as much, but that's splitting hairs imo. As you say, he calls his stars out in the media, and innumerable coaches in this league have been both hired and fired for that. It's all perception.

As far as this structure biznaz goes... I don't see it, except on the PP. And even that has broken down recently.

Robert: Maybe Kipper doesn't hate him as much ;-). Honestly, if anything, they're a bit more passive when they go ahead, so, no, I'm not seeing a big difference on the plus side as of yet. The fashion in which Sutter chooses to interact with the press is occasionally amusing, but as I've said before, that stuff almost never has anything to do with enlightening us schmucks. It's straight messaging to the team. The one thing that is different, to be fair, is that he hasn't played favourites with any player to the level that Keenan did with Bertuzzi. That's good.

2.) Another advertised feature of the Sutter hire was improved defense. The Flames do seem to be blocking a lot more shots this year, they also seem to be giving up a ton. Has the defensive turnaround happened? Happening? Over-sold to the public?

R O: A good amount of #2 (happening) and a heck of a lot of #3 (over-sold). The Flames are giving up a ton of shots because they're spending so much time in the Flames zone, and that's on the forwards. I've seen the defense good though, it's a fricking miracle we're not getting swamped in scoring chances (and some might say we're getting swamped, our definitions may vary though). But lately we've been spending less time in our zone, which is nice.

The Sutters sold the defense on a specific premise: preventing GA. Many factors contribute to GA: goaltending, zone time, defensive zone coverage. And the defensemen influence #2 a bit and #3 a lot. So as far as the defensemen's contribution to defense, it is there and it is sizeable. But as far as defense as an overall picture ... Kipper's turnaround has been just as important, and the forwards' play in the early season has dragged it down.

Robert: I think Richard has it right on the button when he talks about the contribution, or absence thereof, of the forwards to good team defence. This team still bails out of it's own end too quickly, and other than Langkow and Conroy, the centers struggle a bit down low in their own end. The defencemen are good, but they 'll be under the gun until the forwards, and the "first line" in particular, get things turned around.

3.) Keenan was heavily criticized in some quarters ( for giving favorable circumstances to some players based more on reputation than performance (ahem...Bertuzzi, Phaneuf). And while Brent moved away from the Jokinen+Iginla duo briefly, he's shown similar unwillingness to abandon that particular high priced experiment, despite the fact that Jokinen was probably one of the worst forwards on the team through the first 20 games. Was Keenan unfairly maligned or is the comparison unfair?

R O: The comparison is fair, Kent. Bertuzzi and Jokinen to me are similar players, they have a history of needing soft ice time to produce. And their teams might be better off (at the very least not worse off) if they were given bottom-half minutes. It may be my bias, but these are the types of players that don't help you win, unless you obey their handle-with-care label. So putting them beside your best forward for good stretches of the season... not terribly logical. For either coach.

As for Phaneuf, well I think we disagreed about this in the offseason, Kent, but I thought Keenan playing Phaneuf as much as he did was mostly defensible. In the light of giving him ice time to grow into a role befitting his salary, anyway. There were injury rumblings last year and if those were true then it would raise one eyebrow. But only one.

The difference here I think is that Keenan didn't have good PR coming in anyway, and Sutter did. Keenan was blamed for shit he couldn't control (Kipper's bad performances) and for shit that he was not the only culpable party in (Huselius and Tanguay leaving). Coaches have biases, they are people too after all. And we should forgive them that, to a limit. I mean, look how Sutter's playing Conroy at EV (not a lot) - that will hurt our team imo. But that's how things go.

But using Bertuzzi and Jokinen the way they were/are used... shit I can't get behind that.

Robert: I alluded to this in the answer to Q. #1, but I think Jokinen's presence is a hell of a lot harder for Sutter to deal with than Bertuzzi's was for Keenan. Until the Flames trade him (unlikely) or his contract expires, they'll stick with Jokinen. Let's get to the nub. Other than Daymond Langkow, the Flames don't have anyone else resembling a top six center in the organization. Sutter can keep using Joker and hope he breaks out, or use Boyd or Conroy in that role. I like them both as players, but the two of them have enough failings that I can at least understand why Sutter does what he does. I don't like it very much, but I get it. Todd Bertuzzi was a lot easier to slide down the line-up, with guys like Bourque and Moss having good years, and Keenan refused to do so, defending him to the death. I don't support the amount or quality of ice time given to either of Joker or Bert, but Keenan went out of his way with number 7. I think it was the hill he died on, to be honest.

4.) Brent was also supposed to bring increased focus to the power play, which stumbled badly under Keenan's lassez faire practice attitude last season. The man advantage started out hot, but has seemed stagnant recently. Have you noticed any marked improvement?

R O: At the beginning, yes. Not so much in the way of specific set plays, but more so in how the forwards would cycle the puck to open up seams. Of course the early results were also a product of no small amount of luck, but it was a PP that would be top-half at least.

Recently though it has stunk, and I can't imagine why. Players getting away from the things they practice? Sutter PO'd about the 5-on-3 shorty? Perplexing.

And some of his personnel choices are just... odd. Regehr on the second unit? Really? I get that you would want to defend the shift-after-the-PP but man invented line changes for this exact reason.

Robert: Using Regehr the last 15 seconds of the PP is fine. The whole second half of almost every PP? Madness. Stylistically, the reliance on feeding a stand-still shooter does tend to reduce movement, and if the Flames should be looking to do one thing in practice, reinforcing the notion that there are more good ideas than "Phaneuf Smash" or "Iggy one-timer" might be a plan. Jay Bouwmeester's a pretty smart dude. I might want to run the whole thing through him, and don't use Iginla, Jokinen and Phaneuf on the same unit, because all of them are shoot-first. 

5.) The club has alternated between matching Langkow/Bourque and Iginla/Jokinen against tough competition thus far, but hasn't taken the next logical step of combing Iginla with Bourque and Langkow as a true power versus power trio. Sensible?

R O: Iggy-Langkow-Bourque is very sensible, if only to get Jokinen as far the fuck away as possible from good players. Early experiments of Iggy-Conroy-Glencross were also abandoned a bit early imo. The main thing is that Jokinen be heavily sheltered. As your scoring chances show he is separating himself from the pack (in a jump-off-the-cliff way) even with more favorable circumstances than Iggy and Lanks.

Robert: Bourque-Langkow-Iginla, followed by Glencross-Conroy-Moss, followed by Boyd-Joker-Dawes. It makes sense. It'll never happen, unless the team goes in a major funk. 

6.) Similarly, Sutter has occassionally switched from Bouwmeester/Sarich to Regehr/Phaneuf in terms of the tough match-ups, but has never bothered to combine the two best shut-down defensemen on the team into one super-duper-shut-down tandem. This despite the fact that both Phaneuf and Sarich seem to struggle when the they're consistently facing the big guns. What's his reasoning behind this you think?

R O: It's usually an assistant coach who runs the D, right? Last year I would assume Playfair, this year... Lowry? In any case this might probably just be the benches unable to get both the F and D matchups they want. With that in mind I would probably stick with the current pairings, to keep a bona fide shutdown D on the ice whenever possible. I'm afraid with our fairly inexperienced coaching staff that if they pair Bouwmeester and Regehr together, we'd get some panic shifts with Phaneuf and Sarich vs. the Thorntons and Zetterbergs. Not that either Phaneuf and Sarich are incapable of defending against that tier, but it would sure make for some edge-of-your-seat moments.

Robert: The goal in this exercise is clear, no? Sutter wants two pairs he can trust against the other team's better players, and he's hoping that Regehr and Bouwmeester can cover enough for Phaneuf and Sarich to make it so. If the Flames are fortunate enough to be defending a one goal lead late in a Game Seven, I think that you might see that Regehr-Bouwmeester pairing. I think the other point to remember is that most good teams have more than one line, and I suspect that a Phaneuf-Sarich duo facing the second string doesn't fill the coaching staff with much confidence. The D rotation is still a work in progress, though. I'd rather look at them around game 50 or so, myself.

7.) Some players development stalled under Mike Keenan for different reasons. I was personally excited for Dustin Boyd, Nigel Dawes and Dion Phaneuf when I heard Brent was going to coach the Flames. How would you grade his handling of each player thus far as well as how they've responded?

R O: Boyd has gotten a chance, in that he has been elevated past fourth line duty. At the expense of Conroy at times, who still has game - so that's some kind of statement of confidence right there. Still, he's probably the face of the Flames future offence, I was hoping for a bit of second line duty for him, maybe second unit PP time, but nothing in that department (less than 30 seconds per game according to BTN). So give Sutter a solid B for this.

Phaneuf... well, he's a mystery. I've seen him good and bad, maimster too, Matt endorses him though, ironically in a "Trade Phaneuf" thread. Public opinion of him has definitely turned around though, if you listen to talk radio. His PDO is 3 full points higher than last season, and that directly affects that shiny new +/- of his.

You know what, I don't think Sutter has had an appreciable effect on Phaneuf, not that I can see (and YMMV of course). He still loses the occasional puck battle deep in the Flames zone, and always in spectacular fashion - but a lost puck battle is a lost puck battle, it happens and the fact that he looks so bad doing it isn't as big a deal as the fact that he lost it. His first pass is reasonable and his ability to gain the zone is like few other defencemen in this league. And he has problems holding the line on the PP, although he has an amazing shot and an uncanny ability to get it off exactly at the right place (middle of the ice). So I give Sutter a ... B-? Just for not screwing it up.

As for Dawes... he has been put into a position to succeed in that Langkow-Bourque line, and with more PP time than any other forward on the roster not named Iginla or Jokinen. I haven't seen him good or bad tbh, just not the type of guy that catches my attention. So I couldn't say.

Robert: Boyd - I'd like to see more of him, or with different players, but he's a young guy on an older team, and I still think there's a bit of pecking order stuff at work. The fact that he hasn't been unfailingly sent to the fourth line ghetto every night is good, and largely merited. The next step for him is to prove he can handle more than cherry minutes, and I'd guess he'll get that chance next year. Sutter's done OK with him.

Phaneuf - How close are we to Jovo territory? My comments at BOA aside, they won't trade him, but I don't see him being incredibly better to this point. He's a very expensive PP defenceman who can likely handle second level comp. The one thing Sutter has absolutely done is cut back on his PK minutes, which is very wise. Of course, having Bouwmeester makes that an easy call, but still...

Dawes - He's been acceptable. This is likely the longest stretch against top-six opposition in his career, and he hasn't looked too bad. I'd still like to see him as part of a soft-minutes group with Joker and Boyd, but his play is a ways down on the problems list, so the fact that Sutter has given him some rope hasn't blown up as of yet.

8.) The Flames were a strong possession and outshooting team last year. Unfortunately, that strength hasn't carried over under Sutter's reign for whatever reason. In fact, the Flames operated with one of the worst shot differentials in the league through the first twenty games and it was probably a lot of favorable percentages that saw them to a decent record. And while playing to score probably had some effect, there's no question that Calgary has spent a lot of time in their own zone so far. What do you think is the cause? Do you think the team can turn things around in this regard?

R O: A lot of it was Jokinen playing hard minutes. And the rest is... well it's some sort of hardcore PTTS or something taken too far, because the forecheck immediately gets less aggressive when the Flames score an early (i.e. first period) goal. I don't think I'm imagining this, it's happening on the ice after all. Who knows what that is, maybe the players taking the "be more defensive" thing too literally. Or Sutter himself is being overly critical about GA/SA, which ironically turns into a negative feedback loop. I don't know, the Sutters are smart hockey men, surely they realize that offense and defense cannot be separated.

Ironically enough though, in the last three games the Flames have played great at EV, so it might already have started to turn around. This with Jokinen on the top line and facing impact players too. So what the hell do I know.

Robert: I'd bet if we ran the splits from last year, the swap of Joker-Lombardi would mark a point where the Flames' possession numbers started to slip. Throw in a bit of playing to score, and that's about it. Cammalleri was a pretty good player as well, and if you believe, as I do, that forwards drive possession, exchanging his salary slot for Bouwmeester wasn't going to help much in that regard. Bouwmeester can help in mitigating the damage, of course, but that's another matter. As Richard has noted, they do seem to back off when ahead, and although this review doesn't cover that game, Saturday's work against L.A. is more in line with what I'd like to see when the Flames take a lead. 

9.) Finally, share some overall impressions of Brent and the new coaching team.

R O: It could use a little Playfair. But otherwise, adequate, and if they can get the PP going again, more so. As far as a big upgrade over Keenan - now that Bertuzzi is off the team, I don't see it (excepting the PP).

Robert: They've been OK, but I'm loathe to make any lasting judgments after twenty games. I suppose if Kipper keeps playing well, the Marcoux-Noodles change will look pretty good, irrespective of it's actual effect. Otherwise, ask me after the season, because Keenan got the team in a pretty good spot at the deadline, and it all went to hell.