SUN Hockey Pool

Time to put D back in Flames iDentity

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Darryl Sutter says he'll need the better part of a month to assess everything and determine his course of action this summer.

However, the Flames GM was able to identify his first priority quicker than you can say "backcheck."

"We have to tighten up defensively -- it has to be our number one issue," said Sutter yesterday, speaking for the first time since his club was ousted by Chicago.

"In the regular season and the playoffs, we gave up three goals a game -- that's 23rd in goals-against and worst of the 16 playoff teams. That's unacceptable. You can't use star players or goal scoring or a goalie saving the day as a way to win games -- you need a foundation. You need that base to go back to."

That defensive mindset is what Sutter used to lead his club to the 2004 Stanley Cup final as coach, albeit at a time when hooking and holding made goal prevention easier. Since then Miikka Kiprusoff's goals-against average has increased every year despite Sutter's insistence it be job one.

"It was one of my clear goals in the summer to make the team better defensively and you didn't know if you could do it through personnel or by bringing (defenceman Mark) Giordano back (from Russia) and bringing in (Curtis) Glencross and (Rene) Bourque, who were great," said Sutter, whose defence-first mantra fell on deaf ears.

"Were the top guys carrying their weight? Hey, there's a lot more to goals against -- it's not offence or defence -- it's about the whole package. Why do you have guys plus-18 and others who are minus? What's not balancing here? When you're not making big personnel changes it's obviously about a change in philosophy."

And that's why many believe Mike Keenan will soon be fired. He simply wasn't able to hammer home the importance of taking care of your own end first.

He also mismanaged Kiprusoff's work-to-rest ratio, as he liked to put it, by starting him 76 times.

Was that too much in Sutter's eyes?

"Yep," he said.

"Kipper's a star but what's important is being able to sustain it for a long period of time. If (backup Curtis) McElhinney would've started the 14 games he appeared in, that would've been a good number of days off for Kipper."

Whether Sutter can, or wants to, re-sign McElhinney is up in the air but he certainly isn't counting on 21-year-old Leland Irving to ride shotgun just yet.

Given the fact Sutter will likely lose veteran d-men Adrian Aucoin and Jordan Leopold to free agency and promises to start the season with at least one raw rookie on the blueline, the onus will be on the forwards to make a philosophical shift.

"Offence can lose 20 or 30 goals -- we've proven that -- and we can still remain a top team," said Sutter.

"This was by far the most competitive team, overall, but with the goals-against there are reasons for it. If you want to get into that top level -- 50 wins -- you've got to be able to figure out how to address it. Four years ago we were first in goals against and 28th in offence.

"Every year since the lockout we've moved up in goals for and moved down in goals against. That has to change. My (defence-first) philosophy is not something I dreamed up -- it's something that works."


Videos

Photos