I can’t say I am surprised that Geoff Ward was fired, nobody that follows this team should be. I can say that I am surprised that the firing happened after a 7-3 victory. It is unwise to speculate, but my only guess about the timing was that the Flames decided a few days ago, and Sutter needed some time to get into the team’s testing protocol, and get his family prepared to re-enter the NHL. Obviously being from Alberta helps, so he will not have to go through any mandatory quarantines.
Sutter brings with him a wealth of experience. Our own Josh Serafini wrote about the Sutter era in Calgary recently, but the quick version is that he had a .581 winning percentage over 210 games behind the bench of the Flames. Of course, his time in Calgary included the memorable Stanley Cup run in 2004. He then went on to coach the Los Angeles Kings from 2011-2017, notably winning two Stanley Cups.
The guy can coach, there is no doubt about that, and it is fair to expect the Flames to be better in their own end, and much more organized all over the ice. He also has a reputation as an “old school” motivator who is hard on his players, which many see as a good thing for a team that often looks like they lack inspiration.
I think it is fair to ask how his style will mesh with the group on the ice however. Sutter’s teams in Los Angeles were known for being big, physical teams that wore down their opponents physically. They were led by big strong players like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Dustin Brown, along with a bottom six that could bludgeon teams. Simply put, that is not the Calgary Flames. The best players on this team are finesse guys, and with the exception of a few players, physicality is not a strong suit for most of the group. Sutter has won enough to suggest he can adapt his style to the players at hand, but that will be an interesting dynamic to watch.
Systematically, that difference will be notable. Many have criticized the Flames in recent days for their reliance on dump and chase hockey. Sutter is famous for dump and chase domination. Those hoping for the Flames to open things up and start flying around the ice probably won’t see that fully with Sutter.
But on the flip side, they will have defensive structure, an identity, and most importantly, some passion. You can be successful playing good defence and being structured, you just can’t have what the Flames have had, no offence while also not being well organized.
And, if nothing else, this represents a change. Sutter is a coach with a ton of experience, and one who has the tenacity to get the most out of his players. If he cannot get this team motivated, it will be on the players and no on the coach. This move was a badly needed first step in turning this thing around this season.
Lets get into the notebook.
1. Someone has to play right wing.
One of Sutter’s first big decisions will be to decide who to play on the right wing of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. As pointed out by my TWC colleague Karim Kurji, it has been a rotating cast so far this season.
Now Leivo got some more time on that wing last night, and is now up to 44:12 with the first line. In total, the group has done well, with an xGF% of 56.16%. Leivo finally found the back of the net after having a miserable start to the season from a shooting percentage perspective. Even with the goal, he is shooting just 3.85% at even strength, with one goal on twenty six shots. I think he could go on an extended run with the first line, and most importantly he is a right shot that can help the line move pucks all over the ice.
I liked this graph this morning from Micah Blake McCurdy.
Specifically, it is amazing how much of the offence comes from the left side of the ice. Especially for wrist shots, which make up the majority of modern shots, there isn’t much of a presence on the right side. This isn’t totally attributable to the difference between right handed players and left handed ones, but it has to be at least a factor. If Leivo could find some production on that wing, the lineup will really benefit. If right hander Brett Ritchie can find some on the fourth line, then even better.
2. How does sutter use this lineup?
It will be fascinating to see how Sutter deploys this lineup. Specifically, I am interested in what he does with the decisions at the margin of the lineup. Sam Bennett is a big decision to make. On one hand, he has been pretty awful this year, and obviously asked for a trade. On the other hand, he is a Sutter type player, who plays physically and can help establish the physical side of the game. Maybe Bennett still wants out, or maybe he takes the change as a fresh start with a new coach.
Who else plays on the fourth line? At first glance, Brett Ritchie seems like a guy Sutter will like. Ritchie has looked ok this season, and certainly better than guys like Buddy Robinson or Byron Froese. On the other hand, a guy like Joakim Nordstrom doesn’t provide much in the physicality department, and Sutter might look somewhere else if he is trying to fashion a fourth line after the maulers he had in California.
I think Derek Ryan stays in for now. He isn’t a big man himself, but plays well with the big boys, notably having success with Lucic in prior years. Ryan looked much better last night than he did before the injury, and maybe some time off gave him some time to train and re-set a bit. Calgary is desperate for contributions, and goals like the one he set up last night are massive.
If I had to guess, I think Bennett will draw in, alongside Ryan and Ritchie. Thats a physical group (truculent you might say) and will help to establish an identity.
3. Lucic a bright spot, reunites with former coach
I have written about Lucic’s play a few times this season, but another goal this week bears mentioning. It is not a meme anymore when the big fella scores, he has been one of the most consistent goal scorers on the season.
Last season, Lucic looked like he could barely shoot the puck. I am curious if he found a new trainer in the off-season, because his shot seems like it is getting on goalies much quicker than they expect. He has scored a couple five hole in the early going, and the other night buried his goal off a rebound of a shot that seemed to catch the Senators’ goaltender off guard.
Now, obviously Lucic is not a superstar shooter, that isn’t his game. But this release looks way better than last year, and he is getting rewarded for it. His sky high shooting percentage won’t last forever, but the eye test is better than last year too.
Then after the game, Lucic took to the radio waves to call out his teammates and take responsibility for the recent side. It wasn’t the sort of canned response we are accustomed to, but an honest, pissed off veteran who is tired of getting embarrassed.
Like any leadership moment though, words can only do so much, actions must follow. On his first shift last night, he made this play.
I mean if Mangiapane buries this (and he usually does), this is one of the plays of the season for the Flames. Most importantly, it was a result of a Flames player dictating the play. He didn’t wait for Erik Gudbranson to make a play, he ran right through him. Then on a partial break, made a great read to send it back to Mangiapane.
Now, already in the midst of a mini-renaissance season, Lucic reunites with Sutter, with whom he had success in his one season in Los Angeles. Lucic posted the highest CF% of his career with the Kings in 2015-16 at 59.42%, to go along with a 57.83xG%. Expect more of the same from the king of the jungle.
4. Monkey off the back
Last night saw a trio of Flames who really needed a goal find the back of the net. Leivo scored his first of the year after being right near the top of the league in xG without a goal.
Likewise, Dube netted a hat-trick last night after not scoring for eight straight games. Dube has flown under the radar this season as a guy who has really struggled since coming out of the gates fast. He is below 50% CF%, and has an xG% is 44.82%. All of this comes while playing alongside some of the best players on the team, including Matthew Tkachuk, who historically has been a very good possession player.
Dube is still a very promising young player, and in fairness, nobody has scored much recently. But they really need him to get going, and they need his line with Lindholm and Tkachuk to be the 1A or 1B line to the Monahan group. When playing against high octane offenses like the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Flames need two eithe shutdown lines. With Monahan and Gaudreau’s struggles defensively, they need everything that they can get out of Tkachuk, Dube, and Lindholm.
And lastly, it was great to see Monahan find another one. I have been yelling to anyone that would listen that Monahan was due, and the goals have started to trickle in. His shooting percentage has climbed above double digits for the first time in a while, and he is finally getting some bounces.
Dont get me wrong, this was atrocious defence by the Senators, but Monahan showed that he can rip it from the top of the circles. I wish he would be even more assertive and let this shot go more often. His release is sick. Expect more goals, and soon.
P.S. As a Juuso Valimaki stan, I had to include a clip of the play he made to keep the puck in before this goal.
5. Its a new Day
It will take some time to analyze the second Sutter era, but it is important to recognize the reality that it is a fresh start for the players, and more importantly the fans. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Sutter’s teams will play hard, and that he can motivate his players better than most.
That would be beneficial on its own, but the real positive is that it signals a mindset that if you dont play the right way, you will find yourself outside of the lineup and potentially playing somewhere else. If Sutter can get this group to bounce back, then great. If it doesnt turn around and they ship out some players and start the rebuild, its probably time for that too.
Whatever happens, it will be different from the train wreck we have seen the past few weeks. It might be a golden era for the Flames, or maybe it won’t be. But changes were needed, and they have come. They likely aren’t over either.
The Ward era is over. The (second) Sutter era begins now.
Photo Credit: Gerry Thomas