“Buckle up!” – Milan Lucic, March 5, 2021
Fans have called for a coaching change in Calgary since February, 2020. The general consensus among most all of those vocal enough to talk about it (that would be most of them) was the simple fact that Geoff Ward was in over his head. He was unqualified to helm this version of the Calgary Flames. Despite all this however, the Flames under Ward had rebounded and gained major ground in the standings after the “resignation” of Bill Peters.
The fanbase was collectively left wondering if the label “interim ” would be removed once hockey resumed, provided the NHL would be able to finish the 2019-2020 season. Some fans wanted the label removed, but it’s a safe bet more wanted a different coach. This hope/request/demand increased tenfold during the bubble playoffs when Ward pulled goalie Cam Talbot with the Flames en route to a 7-3 loss after taking a 3-0 lead in game 6 against the Dallas Stars.
This complete souring on the coach carried over into this abbreviated 2021 NHL season: Ward had the team hovering around the .500 mark, losing to teams they should have dominated, and in fact had shown they could dominate. Many observers commented on the fragmented style of play they saw on the ice, speculating that perhaps the players had “checked out” – basically giving up on their head coach.
Its unclear what the final straw was that caused team General Manager Brad Treliving to pull the trigger on a coaching change. He fired Geoff Ward after a 7-3 win over the hapless Ottawa Senators – a team the Flames had only taken a total of 4 out of eight points from during their four-game series. All four games showcased the best and the worst of this incarnation of the Calgary Flames and surely provided the tipping point for the change in bench bosses.
Instead of naming the current assistant coach as interim coach much like happened with Ward, Treliving surprised and shocked the fanbase by hiring Darryl Sutter. Fans have been conditioned to believe that the team was too stingy to hire what they would call an “elite” coach, opting instead to paw through the bargain bin. While this isn’t exactly true, there have been several coaches through this system that sparked a lot of Google searches by fans looking to see what qualified these choices. This hiring is different.
Sutter is an elite coach with an elite win/loss record. But it’s not just that: He has the ability to get the absolute best out of anyone playing for him. Hired initially in 2002 by the Flames , he didn’t take the reins until the “wee hours” of 2003. The team didn’t make the playoffs that year, the first time a Sutter-coached team didn’t qualify for post-season play. this was not placed at his feet, since the team had basically dug their own graves under former coach Greg Gilbert from the start of that season.
The following season, he took a team that started the year without two full lines of talent and not only led them to the post season for the first time in seven seasons, he took them to game seven of the 2003 – 04 Stanley Cup Finals. The team made the post-season every full season Sutter was coach.
After Calgary, Sutter went on to coach the Los Angeles Kings to two Stanley Cup wins in three seasons. None of his teams’ successes came from coddling the players. Sutter is as hard-nosed as it gets. You play the game the way he dictates, or you don’t play. Sutter is not blind to a player’s abilities though: He will actually get them to play to their strengths.
Current fans are also in for seeing a completely different system being re-introduced into the team’s play. Sutter believes very strongly in team defence first. If you’re strong in your own zone, you will get the puck more often. When you get it more often, you possess it longer, you’re more able to make plays off the turn-over and you get more chances at the opposition net. The other thing you will get is a more physical team. It doesn’tr matter how talented this team is, the players will be “encouraged” to play the body more, to impose themselves between their opponents and the puck.
Fans wanted an elite coach who knows the game inside and out. Darryl Sutter is that coach. The only question at this point is are there enough chances left to win to make this year’s playoffs? Likke Milan Lucic said the day after the hiring: “Buckle up!”
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