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Calgary Flames

Examining the Thinking Behind Sutter’s Mid-Season Rebuild



Let's assume for a moment that this is the extent of Darryl Sutter's moves for the season. Instead of agonizing over hypothetical future deals for other top six forwards, we can look at this newest collection of players and ask outselves…what is Darryl thinking?

Each trade has been assessed on it's own potential merits, but it's time to look at the psychology behind the moves in a broader sense. What contributed to the gutting of a club Sutter was defending as adequate a few short months ago?


Although frequently portrayed as stoic, Sutter’s recent actions are those of a man desperately working against the sand in the hour-glass. After their recent 1-in-10 run, the Flames will need to go 16-9-1 in their final 26 games in order to garner 95 points (the proposed post-season cut-off point in the Western Conference). That’s a 62% win rate, one well above the Flames efforts to date. Make no mistake, Calgary is battling for it’s play-off life and Sutter for his very job. The amount of dollars, promises, coaches and players that have passed through this town in the last few years, without any real change in results, leaves the final accusatory finger pointing at the man upstairs.

There's more than just mere panic here, however. There's a definite purpose to the madness; one that extends beyond an effort to merely correct the Flames offensive woes I think.

Darryl Sutter's a guy that has stepped on a few landmines during his time here. Some forget that this his first go-round in the role of GM and many of his years have been spent learning on the job. As such, there's evidence of Daz over-steering in reaction to previous mistakes or perceived short-comings.

For example, during the mythical Cup run in ’04, the club ran low on defenders due to injuries to Lydman, Gauthier and Warrener. That the team muddled through the rest of the play-offs with rookies Montador, Commodore and (briefly) Brennan Evans was a small miracle. Ever after, Sutter has made certain to stack the club with NHL-ready blueliners (and re-stock the organizational depth via the draft besides). As a result, the Flames are now swimming in defenders.

More to the point, last season the Flames were first in the NW and third in the Conference at the trade deadline. Although the team was dealing with some injury problems (Langkow, Bertuzzi, Giordano) and were already pressed tightly against the salary cap ceiling, Sutter gambled on Olli Jokinen. It’s a gamble that sunk the team. More injuries hit the club, Jokinen’s relatively expensive salary ate up what little cap space was remaining and the Flames stumbled badly down the stretch and into the play-offs. It was a massive blunder. This summer, he canned Keenan, fortified the blueliner further and made it clear throughout the organization that reducing goals against was the new imperative. More over-steering.

Of course, the team trundled along uncertainly under the weight of it's expensive blueline. The GA went down, but so did the GF. Enter the next correction – Flames need scorers! But, this time the strategy was informed by last year's trade deadline failure: Sutter's current efforts look to be exactly opposed to the tact he took previously. Diversification rather than consolidation. He's cleared out cap dollars while adding bodies to the pile. The Flames now have some 17 forwards and more than 1.7M in cap space – there's literally zero chance they'll be caught in a similar predicament come March/April. It may not work to get the club over the hump, but by god they'll never be caught with no cap room and a 3 line roster again.

Reclamation Projects

Of course, one thing that has remained constant throughout Sutter's reignin Calgary is his taste for reclamation projects. He's hit some homeruns (Huselius, Kipper), had some moderate success (Dawes, Nolan) and failures (Zyuzin, Friesen, Amonte, Bertuzzi arguably).

Seeking out "buy low" acquisitions is a sensible GM strategy for uncovering potentially undervalued players, particularly in a cap environment. However it's one that requires nuance and a thorough understanding of the guy in question. Is his value depressed because of circumstances? Bounces? Or was has he rightfully bottomed out? Sometimes a change of venue works to re-invigorate a player's career. Correctly identifying those players is the key to buying low. On the other hand, there are many reclamation projects that represent bad bets. Guys who have to rebound fully in order to provide value for their dollars, for example. Guys at a certain age whose performance is on the decline, etc.

Unfortunately, Sutter has been rather indiscriminate in his reclamation projects over the years. He's made good bets and bad ones. As long as the guy was "good" previously, but isn't now, Sutter has figured "potential rebound!". Kotalik, unfortunately looks like one of the bad ones to me (he was never that good), but it remains to be seen.

Overall, the recent round of moves seems bizarre and unprecedented, but arguably are a result of established Sutter habits. The severity and extent of the changes were no doubt augmented by the losing streak and resultant threat to miss the post-season, but there's still something utterly Daz-like about them.

by Kent Wilson