SUN Hockey Pool

Struggling Flames searching for answers

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:09 PM ET

CALGARY — Make no mistake, Darryl Sutter saved this franchise.

But now, seven years later, it clearly needs to be rescued once again.

With the Flames proving conclusively they’re neither playoff-bound nor playoff worthy, the big question is whether Sutter is the man to clean up the mess he’s made.

Or, is it time for ownership to hand the team over to someone with a fresh set of eyes and a radically new approach to building what has devolved into an aging, directionless, unmotivated and leaderless team?

Frustrated last spring by four straight first round exits, the list of Sutter dissenters has since grown to the point the majority of fans want this year’s colossal collapse to be the final chapter in the general manager’s tenure here.

The goodwill generated by Sutter’s ability to turn a sad-sack franchise around from an also-ran to a Stanley Cup finalist in one year is clearly gone. That was 2004. And while only a handful of teams have as many regular season wins as Sutter’s club has produced since he became GM, the hallmark of his squads is that they falter when it matters most. They’ll finish this year going five years without winning a playoff series.

Indeed, D-Day on Darryl is coming.

The Flames ownership group realizes, like everyone else, the future of the team is dire, made only worse by the radical moves made by Sutter the last two months to try saving a season that saw a nine-game losing string turn preseason Stanley Cup contenders into a punchline.

For every savvy acquisition and long-term signing of studs like Rene Bourque and Miikka Kiprusoff (who made the whole turnaround possible), Sutter’s performance is being cited for a spotty draft record, the continual signing of aging re-treads, keeping Olli Jokinen in lieu of Mike Cammalleri, getting little for Dion Phaneuf and the inability to find a backup goalie.

The team’s best player of late is Eric Nystrom, who is likely headed out of town this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

The team’s worst player, Ales Kotalik, is signed for two more years at $3 million apiece. Acquired in exchange for another major gaffe – Jokinen – the heartless winger is destined to be either a buyout or the most glaring reminder of how Sutter panicked this year.

The team’s highest-paid players, Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester were stunningly underwhelming on many nights this season, especially down the stretch.

The only bright lights were Kiprusoff and Mark Giordano, who Sutter ran out of the NHL two years ago by refusing to give him a one-way contract. Kiprusoff put up Vezina-like numbers this year, which only serves to underscore just how heinous the rest of the squad was to miss the playoffs.

Making matters worse, there’s no help on the way as the club’s AHL cupboards are bare, as they were when Sutter arrived.

While the draft has long been a waste of time for the Flames, this summer is bound to be especially fruitless as the club is devoid of a first and second round draft pick.

While Sutter only had the luxury of drafting once in the top ten, Phaneuf is the only notable selection the club made with Sutter as boss (then again, most drafted well in 2003). No other picks have showed much promise, proving once again Sutter’s scouting staff needs to be gutted.

Clearly the biggest problem facing the club is getting to the bottom of what happened in that dressing room this year causing the lads to tune out a proven winner in coach Brent Sutter.

The aggressiveness, the tenacity, the willpower and the heart that helped Sutter turn the club from a seven-time playoff spectator to Stanley Cup finalist are now the very ingredients missing on a team of misfits hastily thrown together to form a faceless squad.

Ownership will now have to decide if they think Darryl Sutter is the best man to take the risks necessary to right their sinking ship, or if the biggest risk is keeping him around any longer.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca


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