The Calgary Flames 2022–23 NHL season was a disaster.
We have spent endless hours deliberating over just what went wrong and the overwhelming majority of fans pointed the root cause at one source: Darryl Sutter.
The star-laden forward group played terribly? Sutter didn’t put them in the right position to succeed. The team lost countless games in overtime? Sutter never let the team practice this so they were unprepared. The team couldn’t get just one more goal to either tie up or win the game? Sutter prioritized the quantity of shots over quality. The team was in a bad mood? Sutter soured the organization.
Now all of those things may be true. In fact, we have dove deep into those topics before, and more often than not Sutter had a massive influence on such an awful campaign last year and at most times was inexcusable behaviour.
That being said, after the start to the Flames’ 2023–24 season, is there evidence that Sutter was right all along?
Calgary’s style of play
Under Sutter’s direction last season, the Flames at least had an identity. It may not have worked well, but it was at least consistent. They were a high shot volume team, focusing on the quantity of shots versus the quality of those chances. The team worked extremely hard on the forecheck, tried to retain possession as much as possible, and prioritized defensive structure over offensive creativity. That mantra didn’t change against different opponents, nor with different Flames lines—it was just the same old Sutter hockey. Roll four lines and three pairings, and try to get the job done.
Last season, most of the Flames players (aside from Tyler Toffoli and Nikita Zadorov) did not succeed under this style. Career lows were very common and so a style change was clearly needed.
Unfortunately, whatever Ryan Huska has been rolling out this year has simply not worked. It’s hard to pin down what type of team this is, but when last year’s team at least generated shots on goal, this year’s team is both not getting shots and not getting good opportunities.
They simply… exist.
Sutter was right in implementing a strict system that players needed to follow.
The Flames’ dimming star power
Something that Sutter got a wealth of criticism for was his handling of the team’s biggest players, mainly Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. Both had awful seasons under Sutter’s coaching and system. Many assumed that they needed different leadership, but did Sutter actually extract as much as he could out of both?
Huberdeau specifically has played with almost every Flames forward this season in an effort by Huska to get him going. Imagine a world where the team’s $10.5M player is the one that the team is putting AHL forwards with to get going. Huska has apparently given him full freedom to be the player he was expected to be, and he is somehow… worse? So far this season he is a -10 and a 0.56 point per game player which is a career low.
Either Huska’s “system” is worse, or Sutter was actually more capable of maximizing the player that Huberdeau has become.
Youth injection into Calgary’s lineup
The biggest red flag on Sutter’s resume was his handling of younger players on the roster. His infamous Jakob Pelletier press conference, combined with his handling of Matthew Phillips and Matt Coronato throughout the season, made people furious.
This season, the team prioritized youth over veteran presence. Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Toffoli are all on different teams, and the Flames replaced them with the likes of Coronato, Yegor Sharangovich, Walker Duehr, Adam Ruzicka, Dryden Hunt, and Ilya Solovyov. A step in the right direction.
So far? Their on ice performance has been just fine.
It’s not all bad, as Coronato hasn’t found his NHL footing fully, but that will come. Jakob Pelletier was going to have an extended role with the team but suffered an injury that will keep him out most of this year. Ruzicka was also playing his best hockey before also suffering an injury.
But overall, the younger players have almost performed at the same level as the older veterans. They are producing the same as those players were, but aren’t adding enough speed or snarl to the lineup that would truly set them apart. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but early returns show why Sutter defaulted to his veterans game after game.
Time will tell
There is still plenty of time to right the ship, but the initial eye test may show that Sutter wasn’t the root cause after all? It’s a bold statement to make, but it’s not completely far-fetched.
With so much emphasis being put on the coach being the problem last year, it’s completely on the players to back up that fact. So far, they have done nothing to buck that trend. They look the same, and in some cases worse, compared to last season while Sutter is off enjoying time on the farm.
The players’ reputations are at risk here, and fans’ tolerance is growing razor-thin. Maybe more credit should be sent toward Sutter’s handling of his roster last season.