Sutter: Good, bad and ugly

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:43 PM ET

The Calgary Flames decided yesterday the architect of the team’s ongoing demise needed to go, albeit at least six months too late.

Finally coming to grips with what the rest of the hockey world has known since last year — the team is heading in the wrong direction and has no future — president Ken King did what he should have done last summer: He asked GM Darryl Sutter to step down.

And with that the man who saved the franchise through eight years of living by the trade, ultimately died by it.

Then again, given how empty the cupboards were when he arrived as coach in Dec. 2002, trading was Sutter’s only option. And he did it with a reckless abandon that made the club an instant playoff contender via Miikka Kiprusoff and later set the franchise back years with deals that landed the club pricey mistakes such as Olli Jokinen, Ales Kotalik and Matt Stajan that will hog-tie the club for years.

While some saw the Dion Phaneuf swap last January as the first sign of Sutter’s panic/self-preservation mode, it was all part of the club’s impossible goal of contending for a championship every year.

We’ll soon see if the Flames will admit such a policy is delusional at best as interim GM Jay Feaster will now try charting a course out of this mess. Yes, that’s exactly what this 14th-place team is right now — a mess — with a league-leading 11 players sporting no trade/no movement clauses. No matter how Feaster wants to proceed, his hands are largely tied with $56 million in salaries already committed for next year.

The big question now is whether any attempt at retooling or rebuilding involves franchise anchors Kiprusoff or Jarome Iginla. Or if they’re even willing to wave their no-trade rights.

Yesterday’s late Christmas gift to diehard Flames fans who’ve long been clamouring for a change in leadership was a costly one for the owners. Sutter’s contract was said to be “in perpetuity” by King, making the former GM a very wealthy man thanks to the inevitable separation. Not that fans care, as such money doesn’t cost against the cap. Thank god, as the aging team is already wedged up against the league’s $59.4 million ceiling as part of the hole Sutter’s been digging the last few years.

That’s where drafting and development must now come in —something the Flames failed miserably at under Sutter. The only formidable draft pick Sutter authored in his time here came when he snagged Phaneuf with his lowest pick ever, ninth overall in 2003. Sadly, studs like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Shea Weber were all taken after Phaneuf.

Whether the notoriously strong-willed GM ignored the advice of his scouting staff or the group is indeed as inept as it appears may never be revealed as there are bound to be more changes. Besides, they’ll do little to be judged on this summer as Sutter’s dealing has left the club with only one draft pick in the first three rounds, making Feaster’s task a daunting one.

While many will suggest the culture Sutter developed in Calgary needs changing from the ultra-serious, no-fun zone it’s known as, he deserves plenty of credit for following through on his initial goal of establishing an identity for the club shortly after he arrived. En route to racking up the NHL’s seventh-best regular-season record since 2003 under his guidance, Sutter brought in an attitude and the troops who made the team one of the hardest-working, grittiest bunches in the loop. For the first three or four years under Sutter, no one wanted to play the punishing Flames, especially at the Dome.

It was during that time a building that had previously entertained 12,000 casual fans a night had been transformed into a raucous Sea of Red that now has close to 4,000 locals on a season-ticket holder waiting list.

The team’s scrappy identity is long gone now, thanks in part to cushy contracts that have helped make this veteran-laded team more complacent. However, what remains is a rabid fan base that still sees more than 80% in the pews adorned in flaming red despite growing frustrations with Sutter.

For that the Flames owners and the team’s fervent fans should be grateful. The owners could thus chalk up the multi-million dollar payout Sutter no doubt received yesterday as part of a thank-you bonus for upping the value of their franchise tremendously and making the Flames cool again.

Runs to the Stanley Cup final can do that, especially when they come out of nowhere, like after seven seasons without a playoff appearance.

Cynics will say that without a Stanley Cup ring Sutter has nothing to show for his time in an organization that has won a first-round series once in the last 22 years.

Wrong. Through five years of playoff hockey he made the Flames relevant (and extremely profitable) again.

Yet, in the end his hard-headedness was his undoing as he callously snubbed his nose at the hockey world and re-acquired Jokinen as a free agent July 1 despite his failed stint here months earlier.

As stated here that day, he hitched his fate to the wrong horse.

Too bad the organization took this long to figure that out.

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ericfrancis

Eric Francis appears regularly as a panelist on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada


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