If someone would’ve told you back in September that the Calgary Flames would be first in the Pacific Division come February you would’ve called them crazy. If they would’ve told you the same even earlier than that, halfway through the 2020–21 season while Geoff Ward was still behind the bench, you would’ve called them even more crazy.
Yet here we are in the second half of February with just over two months remaining in the regular season and the Flames are currently on pace to win their division, and finish third in the Western Conference. Not since the 2018–19 season have we seen this level of success from the Flames.
They didn’t exactly have a big offseason of changes so what is the major reason for the sudden turnaround from 2020–21’s disastrous season? The answer is simple. It’s Darryl Sutter. Given where this team was last season, and even leading into this season, the the fact Sutter has the Flames sitting where they are in the standings and playing the way they are, he should be a lock for the Jack Adams award right now.
The roster is nearly the same as last season
As mentioned, after a rough 2020–21 season in which the Flames somehow managed to miss the playoffs in the weak Canadian division, general manager Brad Treliving didn’t go out of his way to make any major changes to the Flames roster.
In fact, his offseason moves might have actually made the team worse on paper. Back in the offseason we looked at the total GAR changes for each team in the league, and the Flames came out looking the worst in their division. Here’s a summary of those moves.
As I was saying, it wasn’t exactly a strong offseason from Treliving. He lost the Flames captain and best defenceman in Mark Giordano for nothing, let one of the NHL’s best fourth liners in Derek Ryan leave in free agency, and did very little to replace either.
On defence he went out and added two career sub-replacement level defencemen in Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson to replace Giordano, and then added a trio of fringe fourth liners in Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, and Trevor Lewis to replace the much more capable Ryan and Josh Leivo.
At the very least he did add two-way dynamo Blake Coleman at forward, however as good as he is he’ll never be a bonafide top-six forward and needle mover. He’s a great player, but not the type of acquisition at forward many thought the Flames needed. Tyler Toffoli on the otherhand…
How much influence Sutter actually had on those acquisitions can be left up for debate, but the fact is Treliving is in charge of running the team and it’s his job to make improvements to the roster and he simply didn’t do that in the offseason. If anything he made the roster look worse on paper.
In other words, any improvements to the Flames play this year should almost solely be credited to Sutter and not Treliving.
Ward versus Sutter
It’s no secret that Geoff Ward’s spell as head coach of the Flames was largely a disaster. After being named interim head coach of the team in November of the 2019–20 season, Ward spent just 16 months behind the Flames bench before being fired midway through his first full season as head coach of the Flames in March of the 2020–21 season.
Below are how are the Flames numbers as a team in key metrics look in four different segments. Geoff Ward’s 24 games with the team last season, Sutter’s first 11 games with the team, his final 19 games to close out last season, and finally the teams numbers this year in Sutter’s first full season with the team.
All numbers are courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com and are 5v5 score-and-venue-adjusted.
|Geoff Ward (Jan.14-Mar. 5)||24||50 (20th)||44.79 (26th)||46.89 (23rd)||43.59 (27th)|
|Darryl Sutter (Mar.11-Mar. 31)||11||41.26 (23rd)||50.58 (16th)||53.69 (8th)||47.80 (19th)|
|Darryl Sutter (Apr. 1-May 20)||19||60.08 (5th)||58.14 (3rd)||56.20 (3rd)||60.24 (3rd)|
|Darryl Sutter (Oct. 16-Feb.15)||46||60.16 (1st)||56.90 (1st)||57.12 (1st)||57.89 (2nd)|
I mean the numbers speak for themself. The Flames were an unmitigated disaster under Ward, saw immediate improvement under Sutter in his first 11 games, then to close out the 2020–21 as the team became more comfortable in Sutter’s system were among the best teams in the league analytically.
This season the story is no different. The Flames are without question the best possession and analytic team in the entire NHL as they lead the NHL in CF%, GF%, and xGF%. It’s also worth noting although the Flames rank second for HDCF%, the Boston Bruins who ranks first have a HDCF% of 57.90 compared to the Flames 57.89. They are the only team in the NHL to rank top two in each metric, with the Panthers next closest as they sit top two for CF% and GF%.
Again as we mentioned above, the roster that Ward had at the bottom of the league last season and the one Sutter has sitting near the top this season is nearly identical. On paper they might actually be worse.
If we look at the Flames’ combined numbers under Sutter since his first game behind the bench on March 11th, 2021 the Flames come out looking very nice. In that time span the Flames have played 76 games, so about a full seasons worth of games under Sutter to date.
|Stat||Value||League Rank (Since March 11, 2021)|
So through jumping behind the bench mid-season for a team at the bottom of the league, a lacklustre offseason, to dealing with the league’s biggest COVID-19 outbreak this season Sutter has managed to keep the Flames top four and nearly top three in each metric over nearly a calendar year.
If there was any doubts about how sustainable the Flames play under Sutter was, it should be completely erased at this point. The Sutter coached Flames are for real and they’re here to stay.
A good coach makes his players better
It’s true for any sport. A good coach makes not just his team better, but each individual player on his team better. It’s what we hear all the time about Bill Belichick and the Patriots. In the system they use they’re able to bring in players who have struggled with other teams or never found their footing as an impact player, and find the perfect role and spot for them in order to put them in the best place to succeed given their skillset. I think it’s fair to say Sutter has done the same thing in Calgary.
It’s not a shock that so many players who floundered or struggled last season under Ward are now flourishing under Sutter. A good coach knows how to best use each and every player on his team so that they’re able to reach their max potential. In other words not playing Mikael Backlund on the wing.
Remember all the discourse around how much Johnny Gaudreau would struggle under a coach like Sutter? Well halfway through the season Gaudreau is on pace for the best season of his career and is a contender for the Hart trophy. It’s not just Gaudreau either, almost all of the Flames top players are on pace for career seasons.
Here is a list of Flames players currently on pace to set career highs in either goals, assists, points, or points/game this season:
- Johnny Gaudreau (Assists, points, points/game)
- Matthew Tkachuk (Goals, assists, points, points/game)
- Elias Lindholm (Goals)
- Andrew Mangiapane (Goals, assists, points, points/game)
- Dillon Dube (Assists)
- Rasmus Andersson (Assists, points, points/game)
- Noah Hanifin (Assists, points, points/game)
- Oliver Kylington (Goals, assists, points, points/game)
- Chris Tanev (Goals, assists, points, points/game)
- Nikita Zadorov (Assists, points, points/game)
- Erik Gudbranson (Goals, assists, points, points/game)
It’s truly remarkable that every single Flames defenceman is on pace to set career highs in assists, points and points per game. As well, each of the team’s top forwards are also set to set some career highs, with both Tkachuk and Mangiapane set to have their best seasons in each stat.
The biggest surprise on the backend has been that of Kylington. His sudden rise as a key player for the team was a huge shock, and Sutter played a major role in that. This season was the first of his career where Kylington was given the opportunity to play consistently and in a role outside of the bottom pairing.
After being bounced around the AHL and a healthy scratch in the NHL for years, Sutter has trusted Kylington in a major role for the team alongside Tanev in the team’s top four and it’s rewarded the Flames in a huge way. The difference between Kylington’s results the three seasons prior compared to this year are night and day.
Regularized adjusted plus-minus charts are courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com. The left shows t his season, the right shows the previous three.
And how about Andersson? There was no player who struggled more last season under Ward than Andersson. He was arguably the team’s worst regular defenceman and looked like a shell of his former self. This year however he’s taken a major step forward and once again looks like a top-four defenceman.
Perhaps Sutter’s best work has been turning Zadorov and Gudrbanson into a capable bottom pairing duo. Both players had been below replacement level the past few years, yet both players have made huge strides this season and have been a surprisingly solid duo for the Flames.
In particular Gudbranson had been one of the NHL’s worst regular defenceman over the past three seasons. When the Flames signed him it seemed like a disaster waiting to happen—Niklas Grossmann 2.0 if you will. Yet 45 games into the season, Gudbranson has performed much better than anyone could have ever expected. Anyone other than Sutter I guess.
A miraculous turnaround
The Flames sudden turnaround from Canadian division bottom feeder to Pacific division favourite has been nothing short of incredible. No one could have ever predicted the Flames would be where they are today at this point in the season. Many expected the team to be a bubble playoff team, yet as of right now they are favourites to win their division.
Perhaps what stands out the most is that the Flames finally have an identity under Sutter, something they have been desperately searching for all these years. The team has gotten full marks from various media members, coaches and players across the NHL this season for being one of the toughest teams in the league to face. A far cry from being a punching bag in the league’s worst division under Ward last year.
No coach has had a greater impact on his team than Sutter has had on the Flames this season. To go from 20th in the NHL last year to one of the most dominant teams in the league with essentially the same roster is a testament to just how important Sutter has been to the Flames sudden turnaround.
Photo by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images