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Sutter, Flames too slow to adjust to faster game

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Ahem, can we say the Flames have gone out in Calgary?

OK, sorry.

Yes, it's a little early. Just the first week of December. Still lots of games to be played before the Flames season can officially be declared over and done with.

It just seems so -- what's the word, oh yes -- obvious after Flames suffered their latest indignity at home against Vancouver.

One Sutter who is no longer in Calgary is Darryl's son Brett Sutter, who was traded to Carolina. (Getty Images)  
One Sutter who is no longer in Calgary is Darryl's son Brett Sutter, who was traded to Carolina. (Getty Images)  
The 7-2 loss to the Canucks, a "meltdown" as Flames coach Brent Sutter would later describe it, was Calgary's 10th setback in the last 14 starts. It got so bad the coach put five defensemen on the ice for a third-period power play because his regular forwards were so inept.

Naturally it didn't work for Sutter who wore a look of exasperation through his postgame news conference. Then again not much else has worked this season, which is why the Flames are now just above the cellar in the West and heading for a second consecutive spring of watching the postseason on television.

Calgary is six points shy of the final playoff spot with five teams to climb over to get there, and the Flames have one less game to play than the team currently sitting in the eighth spot. By any measure, it's a steep hill to climb, especially for a team with one of the oldest rosters in a young man's league.

So really, why wait to write the obit on their season? And maybe the Sutter clan, even if the team chairman says he has no plans to fire general manager Darryl Sutter or his brother Brent, the coach.

The masses there have been calling for both their heads since the team missed the playoffs last season -- the first when the siblings worked together in Calgary -- and especially since the team's most notable offseason changes were unpopular signings of castoffs Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay that have made little impact. But so far, the only Sutter dumped by Calgary this season has been 21-year-old Brett, the son of Darryl, who was traded away to Carolina a couple of weeks ago because he got into a dustup outside a bar in Phoenix on a road trip.

That apparently was a bigger embarrassment to the organization than the product it has put on the ice since the lockout ended. A product the coach says has no "emotion or intensity."

Not exactly the kind of words you want to hear from the boss at this time of year, especially when they fit.

Problem is the Flames went into the work stoppage feeling pretty good about themselves -- deluded some might say -- after breaking an eight-year playoff drought with a trip to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. And that delusion seems to be lingering when you hear Darryl Sutter say last week he still believes his team will make the playoffs.

Of course, the GM was probably thinking back to Calgary's perfect 7-0 record during the meaningless preseason. And he probably didn't do the math that says the Flames have to get about 72 of the remaining 114 points available to them. That's a pretty good clip considering the team is well under .500 and gives up more goals than they score, has weak special teams and is soft enough to be worse at home this season than on the road.

No doubt Darryl Sutter also thinks back to the days when he was both coach and GM during the Stanley Cup run, and the gritty, plodding team he constructed rode Miikka Kiprusoff's great goaltending, Jarome Iginla's leadership and a shutdown type of game to a Cinderella-like story.

Thing is that formula doesn't work in the NHL's new world, and Sutter has never really seemed to quite figure that out. He gave up the coaching job after the first post-lockout season to move upstairs, but depending on your perspective, through three different coaches, the Flames have remained either an underachieving team or one that was vastly overrated in the first place.

Calgary has yet to get beyond the first round of the playoffs in the post-lockout world, in large part because that's when the weaknesses teams can hide during the regular season get exposed. The Flames have consistently had problems on offense, and this season the challenges have extended beyond scoring to the defense.

"Our goals-against has to be better," Darryl Sutter said. "As long as we keep our goals-against down, we'll be winning."

Not if the Flames can't score themselves. The NHL is about offense in the post-lockout world, but the Flames aren't able to take advantage of their best producer because they can't find the right center for Iginla and have never really added any secondary scoring depth either.

Sutter's handling of the cap, which has forced the team to play undermanned at the times in the last couple of seasons, hasn't helped matters either. So now his best option might be to convince franchise face Iginla to waive his no-trade clause.

Iginla would likely bring a big return and give Sutter a way to look to the future. Then again, chances are he and his brother might not be around for too much of it.

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