No ifs, ands or Suts

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:27 AM ET

Admit it -- you thought about it.

You probably weren't silly enough to say it aloud, but following the Flames' latest first-round exit you wondered if maybe Darryl Sutter should be fired.

Yes, you know four years ago when he took them to the Stanley Cup final, that sort of talk would've had you hauled away to a padded room. Two years ago, it would've earned you a criminal record and last year, you would have been asked politely to leave a dinner party had you even hinted at the notion.

In a province where Sutter magically transformed a perennial also-ran into a Cup finalist, some believed there'd never be a day when people lost faith in the 'In Sutter We Trust' credo.

However, following the Flames' third straight first-round exit, it's only natural to wonder if perhaps the man who earned instant icon status is losing ground in his race for Alberta's man of the century.

Indeed he has -- pollsters have officially downgraded him to human.

However, as frustrated as some fans are at how perennially underachieving his Flames have become, firing Sutter is not the answer.

It shouldn't even be the question.

In fact, you can safely bet every car flag, jersey, bobblehead and trading card in your collection it has not even crossed the minds of the owners.

Given his run in '04 and the fact he single-handedly gave the club credibility, respectability and profitability, it'll be a few more years before anyone can dare question his tenure.

He's as deeply rooted in the hockey world as anyone in the league and he's respected enough as a hockey man that four of the game's biggest names -- Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Miikka Kiprusoff and Robyn Regehr -- have signed long-term deals to play for him at reduced prices.

But while emerging from the league's toughest division for four straight playoff appearances is admirable, Sutter has set the bar so high Calgarians want more.

So do the owners.

He's certainly under more scrutiny than ever.

Sutter is now heading into a critical time as his task is trying to fill the gaps between his Fab Four. He'll need to come up with innovative ways to inject youth into an organization completely devoid of top prospects on the farm.

It is there where he faces his most damning indictment, as Sutter himself said five years ago the key to rebuilding the franchise would be through the draft.

Luckily he was wrong, as the club has slipped into the post-season repeatedly despite the fact his scouting staff has perhaps the most laughable record in the loop. If he's looking for scapegoats (like Jim Playfair was last year) they are the next obvious ones to go.

Instead, his ability to fleece opposing GMs played a big role in the team's success years back, most notably landing impact goaltender Kiprusoff. He hasn't been able to pull off any such coups of late, nor has he been very good at identifying useful veteran signings that have seen the likes of Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Jeff Friesen, Bryan Marchment and Mark Smith come and go. Owen Nolan is the exception.

Fact is, some of his deals are now starting to hurt the club as he'll have to consider costly buyouts for Rhett Warrener, Marcus Nilson and Anders Eriksson while contemplating the trading of $5-million bust Alex Tanguay.

Keeping the coach is a no-brainer given Mike Keenan has two costly years left on his contract -- unless of course Sutter wants to coach again, which is a handy option.

Despite starting a predictable rift with Kiprusoff, Keenan was adequate at a position that can't continually be turned over.

Remember, Sutter punctuated a quiet trade deadline day by pointing out he had a good team that could take a run at the Cup.

Not good enough, as it turns out, by Flames fans' new standards.

Indeed, Sutter has plenty of work cut out for him this summer.

And he should be given the space and benefit of the doubt to do it.


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