As reaction from this afternoon's announcement that Darryl Sutter has resigned after being asked to do so by Flames CEO Ken King continues to poor in from all corners of the web, it seemed only natural for the first order of business to be gauging said reaction around these parts from the site's contributors. We will begin with mine, because it's quite long and wordy (excuse the large chunks of text, I'm feeling verbose today).
I've been known for somewhat forgiving stance on Sutter in the past. There's no question that being the general manager of an NHL team is a very difficult job, especially in a city where said team is one of the only draws when it comes to pro sports franchises and is treated as such by the media as well as throngs of passionate fans. Darryl Sutter's job was not easy, especially when the team was losing like they did in his first season with the team and coincidentally, his last full season. Of course, fans and media have the right to criticize and protest when they don't agree with the direction the decision makers are taking the team in, and Sutter was essentially given free reign by upper management to do whatever he pleased post-2004. He implemented his ideals of "Sutter hockey" and "Sutter players" and adhered to them relentlessly up to and including his last moves as Flames general manager (Tom Kostopoulos, anyone?)
He stubbornly stuck to his understanding of the game, limited largely to a belief in the importance of "intangibles" like grit, leadership, and toughness, signing aging veterans and insisting on the presence of at least one "enforcer" to patrol the ice for five minutes per game when he wasn't in the press box, and he worked to pack his roster so tightly with these experienced players that young Flames prospects who broke that mould rarely had a chance to crack the roster (see: Backlund, Mikael).
Darryl Sutter is a general manager who never quite became accustomed to the post-lockout NHL. He made a few stabs at it, sure, some being more successful than others, but he never grasped the concept of drafting as well as signing and trading players with young talent at or near replacement-level dollars in mind. He had no problem cheaping out on back-up goaltenders but insisted on making his crown jewel Miikka Kiprusoff one of the highest paid netminders in the league despite the significant body of evidence that suggest that ability doesn't differ all that much between NHL-level starters. His supposed dedication to "loyalty" resulted in hefty contracts with no-movement clauses being dealt out to the team's core players, severely limiting his cap flexibility going forward and forcing him to fill out the rest of his club's roster with lower-level talent. He overpaid players that repeatedly demonstrated they deserved little over league minimum, and his irresponsible and inefficient management of the salary cap when the Flames found themselves decimated by injuries at the end of the 2008-09 season forced the Flames to ice an inferior product which to many, signaled the beginning of the end.
The fact that some of these teams overachieved to a degree before being bounced in the Western Conference quarterfinals arguably only encouraged his belief that he was building his team correctly despite other teams in the league improving by adhering to the pervasive "young, fast, and cheap" mentality, and that the team really was just one piece away from that elusive second-round playoff berth and possibly a Stanley Cup. His "win now" philosophy has hurt the team in the past, present, and future, as the Flames already have over $56 million committed to 17 players next season. Sutter has rewarded good performances with big raises (and lengthy terms), ensuring that the player in question will likely never be able to perform to his contract in the likes of Rene Bourque and Dion Phaneuf, and the players themselves have subsequently been vilified for it.
With the possible exception of the 2004 draft which bore three NHLers (Dustin Boyd, Adam Pardy, and Brandon Prust) and one borderline big leaguer (Adam Cracknell), the organization has had a poor draft record under Darryl Sutter, who far too often treated draft picks as throwaway trading chips rather than potential future players. For years, Flames fans have watched while players drafted after Calgary has taken the podium have gone on to lead successful NHL careers while the Flames' picks either languish in the AHL or make the big club either temporarily, as replacements in the case of an injury, or as bottom six forwards, third-pairing defencemen, or backup goaltenders. There have been no Pavel Datsyuk-esque diamonds in the rough in the Flames organization, and aside from maybe a few players like Tim Erixon, T.J. Brodie, and perhaps Mitch Wahl, there isn't much of an indication that there will be for the foreseeable future. The presence of players like these in the Flames system suggests that drafting has improved, which I believe it has with the quality of prospects we've seen since about 2007, but we will never know for sure until some of these kids mature, potentially five years down the road from now, and further evaluation of Sutter's tenure will largely depend on these future successes or failures.
As I've said before in this space, my ultimate feelings on Darryl Sutter's employment with the Flames are mixed. I think he was quite good as a Head Coach, with a regular season record of 107-73-15 behind the Calgary bench, but his tenure as general manger has been a roller-coaster ride characterized by ups and downs (lately, more of the latter). The return in many of the deals he's made such as the Phaneuf and Jokinen (x2) trades remains questionable at best, and his various trades and signings over the course of the past eight years have worked in some sort of vicious circle to bring the Flames to the state in which they currently find themselves--a mediocre team sitting out of the playoffs with bleak prospects for immediate improvement--a monotonous respite that will be difficult and painstaking to break. Other aspects of his time in Calgary remain murky, like the circumstances leading up to the Dion Phaneuf trade and the relationship between himself and brother Brent that has repeatedly been said to be under severe strain as Darryl supposedly failed to consult him before making roster moves. In some cases, Sutter did the best he could. His dedication to improving the team, although sometimes misguided, and going after what he wanted rather than just settling for making money with the team as-is deserves recognition. He never gave up even when he possibly should have and he can't be faulted for trying. Upper management certainly deserves their share of the blame for letting Sutter continue down this path for as long as he did. The organization has disposed of one broken cog in the machine and replaced it, however temporarily, with one of dubious quality in Jay Feaster. The question now is if, when, and how the teardown--the much anticipated and revered rebuild--begins?
Darryl Sutter should be commended and congratulated for making the Flames relevant in Calgary again. The Flames missed the playoffs for 7 straight seasons before he arrived. The cup run by the 03/04 team was one of the best memories for this Flames fan since 1989 and helped solidify Jarome Iginla as a league superstar.
From 2003 until the end of last season, his teams captured 59.4% of all possible points and made the playoffs every year until 2009-10. Not as bad as the last season and half would make us believe.
That said, Darryl's command of the new NHL under a salary cap was short-sighted and ultimately misguided. He had an eye for defensemen, grinding forwards and bargain-basement 20-goal scorers but didn't realize how much they should truly be paid. He unearthed Miikka Kiprusoff but also thought acquiring Steve Staios was a good idea.
Ultimately what killed the Flames this season and in the foreseeable future was Darryl's belief that sacrificing the future for now was OK. Only 5 of Darryl's draft picks since 2003 have logged at least 15 games with the Flames and only two are still with the club (Backlund and Pardy). Add to that horrific draft record the fact that he has traded away picks for players in their late 20s and early 30s, and it's no surprise that the Flames have more money committed to next year's cap than any team in the NHL.
The true turning point, was the Jokinen deal to the Rangers. The Phaneuf deal had a purpose and didn't handcuff the Flames long-term until Stajan's deal was extended. By ditching Jokinen and his expiring contract for Higgins and Kotalik, Sutter not only bailed on a player, but hurt the team's cap flexibility for a longer term than simply letting Jokinen walk in free agency. It showed no foresight whatsoever. Signing a player like Ivanans while simultaneously buying out Nigel Dawes showed even more ludicrous cap management.
The Flames need a GM who understands that players peak in their 20s, that draft picks are the lifeblood of a successful franchise and that getting value for contract dollars is crucial in a capped league.
Darryl did great things for the Flames, but it was time for him to make way for a more progressive GM. At this point, I don't think Jay Feaster is the right replacement either.
This can only mean positive things for the Flames organization and fans long-term. Not simply because it's removed that constant pain in my neck, but because it shows the Flames ownership and highest management are willing to make significant changes. Ken King, despite massive evidence to the contrary, consistently backed Darryl Sutter, and yet when faced with a final certainty that Darryl Sutter was and is incapable of leading a rebuild, made the hard decision and asked Darryl Sutter to go. Or as the fake Darryl Sutter twitter said today "...Fired on my own terms".
Hopefully this shows the Flames management is willing to pull the trigger on other things that are currently preventing the Flames from a stronger future: trading assets for picks and prospects, restructuring scouting and development staff, and possibly even having a non-combative relationship with the media.
Unfortunately it's not all sunflowers and puppy dogs. Jay Feaster is stepping in to the interim GM position as a largely unknown quantity despite several years as GM for the Tampa Bay Lightning. For as much as is on the record regarding his moves and signings, the more notable trades, i.e. Brad Richards or Dan Boyle, it's been hard to judge how much was actually him and how much was the Oren Koules/Len Barrie circus. This puts the Calgary Flames in a very interesting position with a pivotal trade deadline arriving. Iginla for Brayden Schenn anyone?