The Calgary Flames didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but head coach Darryl Sutter says the organization won back something important.
Their playoffs ended against their neighbours to the north, with the Edmonton Oilers ousting the Calgary Flames in five games in their second-round matchup. But less than a week following that disappointing finish, Sutter waxed poetic about what was accomplished.
“I think just meeting the standards that are necessary to get some respect back as an organization,” Sutter said when asked what he was most proud of. “I think that’s really important.”
Lured out of retirement last winter to tackle unfinished business in Calgary, the rancher said he had a hard time watching the franchise struggle through an identity crisis over the last decade,
Sutter spent his time in the locker-room last season assessing the biggest issues and establishing some starting points for an internal overhaul.
It started with conditioning. The Flames were told to come back better prepared for the grind in the fall. They did.
But Sutter suggested on Wednesday conditioning was still a factor after a tough schedule that included a heavy back half because of COVID postponements. So they’ll start from there again.
Small goals that feed into bigger ones.
“We said our goal was to be a payoff team. And we did that. Bottom line is there’s no longtime goals ever reached unless you can achieve short-term goals. That was something as an organization that had to be, for sure, re-set. We made progress in that,” said Sutter, the heavy favourite for Thursday’s unveiling of the NHL’s coach of the year.
“So it’s taking that and seeing how we can improve on that.”
The Calgary Flames did more than make the playoffs, they won the Pacific Division despite a real lack of expectations and negativity in the media that Sutter suggested became a challenge for some players.
“That kind of slipped into the locker-room, when you have a young group that hasn’t had much success, for sure,” he said.
Consider it another part of their growth, I guess.
Flames established identity
There were many challenges throughout the season, but the Flames established an identity and thrived in ways few thought possible after the loss of their captain in the expansion draft. A young group of blueliners took on massive roles on a nightly basis.
Sutter mentioned a group of young players between 23 and 27 (later bumping that number up a year or two) that the team has rights to or currently under contract for the coming season as the key to continuing their forward progress. Backup goalie Dan Vladar (24), defencemen Rasmus Andersson (25), Noah Hanifin (25), and Oliver Kylington (24), and forwards Dillon Dube (23), Elias Lindholm (27), Andrew Mangiapane (25), Matthew Tkachuk (24) are among those alluded to by the bench boss when talking about next steps.
“I think make sure that group that the team has under contract or has rights to continue to be better players, to work on their game,” said Sutter.
“That’s a pretty good group. They all had outstanding seasons in terms of their growth if you look at it. They’ve sort of set their own bar now.”
The bar is certainly higher. Making the second round for just the second time since 2004 was a big moment. Some will choose to remember that rather than the disappointing series against the Oilers.
But that’s another piece of the puzzle. Pain can be quite a teacher.
‘Good that it hurts at the end’
“It was a good experience for them. It’s good that it hurts at the end because they understand it better. There’s guys that played one round and won one game so they (didn’t) really get much about it,” Sutter said.
A second Stanley Cup for the Calgary Flames franchise will have to wait at least another year. Sutter, though, knows how that works, too.
“The only way you can ever become a Stanley Cup champion is to make the playoffs over and over and over and over,” he said. “And build on that. That’s a four-to-six-year thing for sure. I’ve been through that and done it and failed at it – both – so I know.”
Johnny Gaudreau (28) will also be a huge piece of that puzzle if Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving can get him to sign a new deal before free agency kicks off. Other dominoes will have to fall from there, too, with a few important raises for restricted free agents and the challenge of fitting unrestricted players under the salary cap.
“You just put your head down, you pick away at each file and you try and make your team better every year. That’s my job,” Treliving said on Saturday. “Some of that’s internal growth. That’s how you grow your organization. You fill in around (the core) and keep picking away at it. Certainly, there’s challenges this summer, but that’s our job and we’re not the only ones with them.
“There’s 31 other selfish buggers out there that are trying to win too.”