X's 'n' allies

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

Loitering in the bowels of the 'Dome yesterday while the Hitmen prepared for their southern migration, it soon became evident Darryl Sutter had something he wanted to say. Bothered by the obvious debate over whether his pal Kelly Kisio could survive another early playoff exit, the Flames boss wanted to go on record as the first to defend the Hitmen head honcho.

"Sure it bothers me because he's done a helluva job as a coach and GM," said Sutter, who recommended Kisio add coaching to his GM duties.

"Kelly has put them in a position to do well. The reason they were highly ranked is because of the young kids on the team he built. From a GM standpoint he's probably got the best 16 and 17-year-olds in the league. It's up to them to respond."

Well schooled in the art of motivation through media, Sutter's goal of putting out a fire was also clearly intended to light one under Kisio's crew on the eve of tonight's playoff opener in Lethbridge.

"From a scouting standpoint they're one of the best teams to watch with young guys like Riley Merkley, Ryan White and Dustin Kohn -- everybody is going to find out what they are," said Sutter of three undrafted players who will have to help world junior stars Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Ladd if the club has any chance of countering the Hurricanes' depth.

"Getz and Andrew will be great in this series. They were two kids who took their game to another level at Christmas. It's up to the quiet guys who are high drafts to show up at crunch time."

Calling out players as if it was his own team, Sutter said it was time for Washington's 6-ft. 6-in. first-round draft pick, Jeff Schultz, to show his mettle, as well as L.A. Kings second-rounder Konstantin Pushkarev.

"I can't talk to them -- it's not my place," said Sutter, when asked if he had been asked into the dressing room to help motivate the troops.

"I talk to them personally because I know them and want them to do well. Some of them are my favourite players but they're not my players. They've got so many draft picks -- obviously 30 NHL teams thought highly enough of these players."

All told, 10 Hitmen players have already had their names called at the NHL's Entry Draft. Seven have gone in the first four rounds and three -- Getzlaf, Ladd and Schultz -- are first-rounders.

Obviously they're the ones under the most pressure to perform.

These playoffs will speak more about them than anyone else.

Still, Kisio's work with co-coach Dean Evason will now be put to the ultimate test as the team's systems, discipline and drive are measured strictly by seven-game showdowns.

Make no mistake, Kisio's ability to assemble yet another all-star cast is a feather in the cap of last year's executive of the year. He knows this league as well as anyone.

However, right or wrong, the reality in sports is a fourth-consecutive first-round exit will call into question his future as both coach and GM.

Only a fool would deny that.

After all, it was just last week Flames president Ken King told the Sun, "he would have expected more."

Scary words from the boss.

"Win the first round and you could win it all," said Sutter, alluding to the unlimited potential of these Hitmen.

"Anything is possible."

Sutter's soldiers proved that to be true last spring.

Now it's time for Kisio's kids to do the same.


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