As a footnote, the respected francophone hockey writer Francois Gagnon said tonight on RDS' "L'Antichambre" that he believes Brent Sutter will join his brother in Calgary as Keenan gets the gate...
Top-to-bottom review will play out before blame game
ERIC DUHATSCHEK, the Toronto Globe and Mail, April 28, 2009
CALGARY — So here is the question facing the Calgary Flames ownership group, as they sift through the ashes of another disappointing first-round playoff exit.
Did the edition of the team, coached by Mike Keenan and managed by Darryl Sutter, have the right stuff for a long playoff run, but was simply undermined by injuries to key personnel?
Or do their problems winning in the post-season run deeper, and require an organizational makeover from top to bottom.
At this early stage — only one day removed from a first-round ouster by the Chicago Blackhawks — you can safely predict one thing: The organization will conduct a complete review before the blame game starts, the scapegoats are identified and the changes come.
This is how the ownership works in Calgary — operating quietly in the background, providing the hockey-operations department with the tools to get the job done, and then staying out of the way so the professionals can handle it.
As a model, most managers will tell you this is the preferred way to go. The only downside is, it comes with real accountability.
For example, Sutter and Keenan convinced the owners to sign off on the trading-deadline deal that brought Olli Jokinen to the Flames, on the grounds that — while expensive — it could close the gap between Calgary and the two runaway leaders in the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings. You know how well that turned out.
Hockey, at this level, is a results-driven business. Some of the results in Sutter's six-plus years at the controls have been good — the building is full, the revenue streams healthy, the fan base committed enough to invest a small fortune in the Flames' signature red apparel — but the owners will need to take the temperature of the paying public to see how deeply their dissatisfaction may run with another first-round playoff exit.
Their evaluation will need to consider injuries that sidelined Robyn Regehr (a significant knee injury, according to Keenan), Dion Phaneuf (shoulder, broken ribs), and Cory Sarich, who played the final five games, though not completely recovered from a fractured ankle.
On an evaluative level, they have a close point of reference in their divisional rivals, the Vancouver Canucks. Last year, with virtually the same lineup as they have now, the Canucks missed the playoffs because of a crippling run of injuries to defencemen. The Canucks, who overtook the Flames in the final week for top spot in the division this season, will be favoured to defeat the Blackhawks in the second round, and yet, it wasn't so long ago — January actually — that they couldn't win a game for trying. Why? Mostly because of an injury to starting goaltender Roberto Luongo.
Injuries, as Keenan likes to say, may not provide an excuse, but sometimes, they do provide an explanation.
Post-game, after the Flames lost the series to the Blackhawks, Keenan posed a question to reporters. If Chicago had had to play without Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, their two excellent young defencemen, while Calgary had Regehr and Phaneuf at its disposal, would the result have been any different? Fair point.
Last year, in Vancouver, all the Canucks injuries didn't save general manager Dave Nonis's neck from the chopping block. The decision — by ownership, to remake the organization's culture — came anyway, and the new man at the helm, Mike Gillis, brought with him a fresh perspective. Sometimes, new ideas and approaches can set a team off in the right direction as much as wholesale personnel changes.
It's something to consider in Calgary as well, given that a lot of the players likely aren't going anywhere just for salary reasons. Some of Calgary's contracts — $7-million annually for Jarome Iginla, $5.8-million for Miikka Kiprusoff, $4-million for Regehr — represent good value for what the players contribute.
The mistakes they made occurred further down the depth chart — $2.4-million for Jim Vandermeer, $4-million for Adrian Aucoin. Sarich, a warrior in the playoffs and the sort of player that you win with when post-season intensity is ramped up — is nevertheless a pricey $3.5-million. Daymond Langkow, playing with two bad hands, is the same — expensive at $4-million, but injury-free, he is the sort of character player who might be a difference-maker in the post-season.
Because of all the dollars tied up in top players, this is almost certainly the end of the line in Calgary for Michael Cammalleri, Todd Bertuzzi and — unless he's prepared to take a major pay cut — Aucoin as well.
Of the three, Cammalleri's 39 goals will be missed the most. Cammalleri had only an average playoff, probably because he played so little with Iginla, where much of his success came early on. But the Flames were determined to make the Iginla-Jokinen pairing work at all costs, even if it meant disturbing the good chemistry that was in place before the trade deadline.
Bertuzzi's career-long propensity for taking penalties — some reputation calls, some well-earned — makes his departure likely as well.
Internally, the reviews will begin sooner rather than later. Options will be considered after defences, from Sutter and Keenan and team president Ken King are heard. But after advancing out of the first playoff round only once in almost 20 years, changes are certainly coming. The only real question is the depth and breadth of their scope.
The poll, by the way, is multiple choice.