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Sutter assesses the season

Flames GM likes team but notes there are areas that need improvement

Monday, 04.05.2009 / 4:01 PM / News
By Mike Board  - CF.com Digital Content Director
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Sutter assesses the season
Darryl Sutter has had a week of assessing his Calgary Flames. And he will continue that process in the upcoming weeks. While the Flames general manager believes Calgary is a good team, he has already identified several areas where improvement is needed.
Darryl Sutter

"This group, this year, was certainly capable to still be playing," said Sutter Monday in an interview in his office at the Pengrowth Saddledome. "No question I thought it was the best group to be set up as a playoff team."

By that Sutter means in the five years he has been general manager of the Flames, this was the team he would have thought could go deep into the playoffs. Instead, battered by injuries, the Flames were defeated in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Sutter, who has met with about 13 of his players already and will meet with his coaching staff later this week as part of his ongoing analysis of the team and the season, said two areas of improvement are the goals against and the power play. The Flames were 23rd in goals against in the regular season. The season before, they were 15th overall. In the season prior to the lockout they were one of the top defensive teams and right after the lockout, they were in the No. 1 spot in goals against.

"Of the 16 teams to make the playoffs, we were the one with the highest goals against average and that's not acceptable," said Sutter.

The other area is the power play. Sutter said a team with "power play stars" that finishes eighth overall in scoring just has to be more productive. The Flames sputtered down the stretch with the man advantage, going 0-42 to finish the regular season. Those problems continued into the playoffs.

"To not have them all prepared to take it to the next level when it is their opportunity, there is an issue there," said Sutter. "Clearly it is one that has to be addressed."

Sutter who met with calgaryflames.com and the various media outlets in Calgary, from television to radio and print, on Monday, touched on a number of topics which are synopsized below.

THE REGULAR SEASON

"We felt it was a very good hockey club. We felt going into the season that we were clearly a playoff team. The goal was to get home ice, which is difficult," said Sutter.

The GM breaks down the season into segments. Knowing that the team had a long road trip in March because of the Brier being in the Pengrowth Saddledome, it was critical for the Flames to make hay through the early part of the season. In January and December, they were the top team in the NHL, producing a 16-5-2-1 record.

March, however, was painful as the Flames went 6-9-0 and were just 3-3 at home. That home record bothers Sutter, whose teams have been fourth overall at home in the league since the lockout. "Clearly our worst month," said Sutter who points to two games as costing the Flames the Northwest Division title and home ice, an 8-6 loss to Tampa Bay just prior to a seven-game road trip and an 8-6 loss in Toronto to end that seven game road trip. The Flames finished with one more win than Vancouver, who claimed the Northwest title, but were two points shy of the Canucks as they finished with 98 points. A win in either of those games, against teams that were obviously not playoff-bound, could have given the Flames that home ice advantage they sought in the first round.

"We wanted to win the division. That was my goal and I know there are things that come into that such as injuries, but I don't use that as an excuse," said Sutter. "In April, prior to the playoffs, I thought we played really well. In April everyone was talking about our injuries but we were 3-3. If we had done that in March we would have won the division by five points."

The injuries Sutter mentioned did hurt the Flames down the stretch. Two rock-steady defencemen, Cory Sarich and Robyn Regehr, missed lengthy periods while Dion Phaneuf missed the final two games of the season and then missed the final game of the playoffs with a bad shoulder and broken ribs.

THE POST-SEASON

Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla leaves the bench as a dejected coach Mike Keenan and other players serve out the last few seconds of a 4-1 loss and elimination by the Chicago Blackhawks
When Sutter put together the team at the start of the season, and then added Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold at the trade deadline, it looked as though the Flames were poised for a strong playoff push.

But the Flames saw their division lead slip and with it home ice advantage in the first round. So, the Flames started in the Windy City against a jacked up, youthful Chicago team.

"When you don't get home ice you are an underdog," said Sutter. "It doesn't matter how you mix it or what people say. It is, strictly, if you don't have home ice you are an underdog. You have to get one of those first two games on the road and we clearly played well enough to win Game 1. I thought Game 2 we made some mistakes which made us not good enough to win that game. In Games 3 and 4 we dominated. Game 1 is the one that made the difference in the series to me."

The Flames lost Game 1 in overtime, 3-2, and, after battling hard in Game 2, also fell 3-2. They won Games 3 and 4 on home ice before dropping the final two games of the series to exit in six games.

THE FUTURE

Overall, the Flames have had success through the past five seasons, all of which they made the playoffs. The fristration from fans comes from the post-season and first round losses.

"We are a good team and they (fans) expect that," said Sutter. "Five years ago the only question I was asked was whether we would make the playoffs. I look at the team on a yearly basis. That's the only honest way to do it. Once you get to a level where you expect more from your team...This group, this year, was certainly capable to still be playing."

Having said that Sutter's plan has always been to continue to add youth to a line-up and there is no reason to think that will stop with the likes of Mikael Backlund and John Armstrong in the wings.

The core of the team? Not about to change. The Iginlas, Regehrs, Kiprusoffs, Phaneufs, Langkows etc., are set.

"Our core group of guys is not going to change," said Sutter. "We have 15 or 16 guys under contract. They are good players. They are not going anywhere. That's what is important."


ASSESSING THE COACHES

Calgary Flames coach Mike Keenan
Sutter did not single out any individuals. As mentioned above, he is going through a process to analyze the season that was before making any decisions.

"I don't break it down to one guy," said Sutter when asked about head coach Mike Keenan, who has one year remaining on a three-year contract. "I break it down into staff, leaders, players, salaries, all that stuff. It is pretty easy to pat one on the back and kick another guy in the pants. I don't look at it like that. The game is not like that anymore. It's based on the whole group as a group and how they work together."

Sutter said his analysis of the season began last week with player meetings and will continue with meetings with coaches this week. Changes, if any, in the coaching and player ranks, will take time as he doesn't plan on rushing into anything.

"There's not any kind of timetable on it," said Sutter. I don't think that this is a process that says we have to do something on this day. I think you have to gather and analyze and make good decisions."

And when Sutter says analyze, he means top to bottom.

"It's about your whole game," said Sutter."You can break it down a lot of ways. Home, road, back-to-back, division. All those things. For the most part we hold up pretty good but there are some areas that need improvement. You break it down into philosophy, you break it down into top players, you break it down into coaching, you break it down into schedules. Those are all the tings we have to go through before we decide what we do. It's a long process. We have only been out a week or so."

THE YOUNGSTERS

Players like defenceman Adam Pardy developed nicely over the course of the regular season. Others, including Matt Pelech, David Van der Gulik, Brett Sutter, John Negrin Warren Peters and others from the Flames top affiliate in the American Hockey League, stepped in to do the job when the injury bug hit the Flames. Sutter was extremely pleased with their development.

"I thought the young guys that we put in played well," said Sutter. "Nobody was expected to be Robyn Regehr, Cory Sarich or Rene Bourque. But they gave us an opportunity to win every night."

THE GOALTENDER

Miikka Kiprusoff won 45 games, more than any goaltender in the league. He also played 4,417 minutes, also more than any other goaltender.

While Sutter is disappointed in the defensive play of the Flames, he wasn't laying at the goaltender's feet.

"Out goaltender was pretty special for us this season," said Sutter.

THE NEWCOMERS

Forward Michael Cammalleri
While many were pleasantly surprised at the output from Rene Bourque and Curtis Glencross, Sutter said the Flames got what they expected from the pair of gritty, speedy wingers who were acquired in the off-season.

"They fit into what we needed. We needed some size and speed on the wings and they brought that. We needed some guys who could play at both ends of the ice and those guys brought that," said Sutter.

Of course, there was the return of Mark Giordano who, until he was injured, showed he could play regularly in the NHL.

The other two major acquisitions in the off-season were Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi. The latter was a player that head coach Mike Keenan and captain Jarome Iginla felt could really help the Flames and "for the most part, he did," said Sutter.

Cammalleri had a team-high 39 goals.

But both Bertuzzi and Cammalleri can become unrestricted free agents this summer. Will they be back? That assessment is yet to be made.

"He (Cammalleri) is one of a number of unrestricted free agents on our team and every team has them," said Sutter. "It's not putting him above somebody or putting somebody below him. I think we have a really good professional and personal relationship, Cammy and I, and that's important. The speculation that you can sign him or you can't sign him, that's exactly what it is.

"We will work at it and we will see where it goes. Obviously there is a point where the price is too high. There is a point where it works. We have a lot of different ways of working it with him so we will see how it goes."