Tough NHL coaches typically have a relatively short shelf life. Darryl Sutter knew it was time to remove himself and focus solely on his Calgary Flames GM duties back in 2006 in his first go-round.
At the time, Sutter turned the coaching reins over to former associate coach Jim Playfair. Playfair had been the buffer between the blunt and tactically prickly bench boss who preceded him. When Sutter was particularly harsh, Playfair would offer a quick pickup of positivity to balance it out.
Before he pulled out of the dressing room in favour of the front office, however, Sutter’s handiwork as the head coach was obvious.
He pushed all the right buttons and gave the team the identity it needed to make a surprise Stanley Cup run in 2004.
The team at the time reflected the makeup of the man who was tapping those players on the shoulder, getting in their faces in the locker-room, and smirking with satisfaction when he saw the results his methods produced.
It was a hard-working, hardened group that could just as easily have thrived putting in hard hours on the Sutter Ranch as it did on the ice.
The 2021-22 version of the Calgary Flames is a sleeker, faster and more modern version of those Cup Final Flames of the past. But the frame isn’t far off. The identity is back, and no one wants to face the Pacific Division leader right now.
They’ve destroyed opponents over an eight-game winning streak during which the Flames are averaging more than 4.5 goals-for per game and allowing fewer than 1.5 against.
Calgary Flames establishing identity again
As winger Matthew Tkachuk said on Thursday, the team is enjoying the run. But these players aren’t celebrating. The good feelings are fleeting. The fun is quickly forgotten, traded for focus on the next two points.
“You have to enjoy it. You have to realize what is making you successful,” Tkachuk said. “But you also have to realize that not everything is perfect.”
“We want to be known as that team that’s really hard to play against, for one to 60 minutes – sometimes more,” he added later.
“We aren’t on the top of the rollercoaster right now because we’ve won a bunch in a row. We still see things we’re not happy with and we know we’re a ways away from being at our best.”
The thought of what this team looks like at its best is scary. If all goes to Sutter’s plan, we’ll see that peak come playoff time.
Just like we did in 2004.
Sutter’s methods haven’t really changed from then. In fact, they haven’t changed much since 1990, when he guided the International Hockey League’s Indianapolis Ice to a league championship.
Championship chalkboard mantra remains relevant
We wrote a month ago about the chalkboard mantra revealed by former Sutter player and current Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy – Work. Win. Have fun (just don’t mess up the order). When a reporter reminded him about on Thursday, he said that is still relevant.
“It’s the same thing you tell little boys that you tell grown men,” Sutter said. “Three things you have to do is work hard, listen to your coaches and have fun. But get the order right. They figured it out. And they won.
“It’s the process of what you have to do to be successful and how you do it. We’re talking about this now because the team is winning some games. But we’re talking about that in the room when your team is struggling, too.”
The order hasn’t been quite right for a number of years. That includes last year, when Sutter arrived to take over a team that had a lot of good pieces but little accountability and structure. Even earlier in the season, the team struggled with maintaining that even keel preached by the Calgary Flames skipper.
“I don’t think anybody in our room is satisfied,” Blake Coleman said Thursday, suggesting they’re getting it right now. “I think we’re happy with the progress of our group and we’re playing well. But we still are a hungry team and want to be the best.”
If they keep it up, odds are pretty good that Sutter will take home the Jack Adams Trophy as top coach. But he’d much prefer another piece of hardware. A third Stanley Cup, and the redemption after missing out on one in Calgary all those years ago.
So he’ll keep ensuring his team stays focused. That they do things in the right order. Sutter still has it when it comes to making sure the players don’t feel too good about themselves – at least for too long.
“Oh, I’m good at that.”