With the Stampede in full swing, Calgarians are as distracted from hockey as they ever will be in any calendar year. Though the red jerseys with the flaming 'C' on the chest may have temporarily been replaced by tasselled shirts, bolos, cowboy hats, tight jeans, and even tighter boots, the Flames faithful are counting the weeks until the break of training camp. Since the disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, no team has been more active or bold in their attempt to improve than the Calgary Flames.
Dissatisfied with elements of the team's overall performance last season, Flames General Manager Darryl Sutter announced that the entire program would be under evaluation. While Sutter assured that the core of the team would remain intact, he did make it clear that adjustments would be made where deemed necessary. Since that moment, the Flames have been one of the busiest teams in the NHL.
"At the end of the year you evaluate your season, you evaluate where you think you could have been better and what you want to do going forward," said Sutter, who went on to foreshadow the teams approach to their offseason.
"I think (the team's defensive play) slipped a bit this year... we were number one in team defence the year after the lockout and the consensus after the year was: 'well you guys have got to score more goals,' well, that's not really the case. We've gone from first in team defence in the league to 23rd."
The trademark of Flames teams during the Sutter regime has been a firm emphasis on defence, and last year's regression on the backend ultimately sealed the fate of the coaches. Sutter took just over a month to evaluate the team from top to bottom before announcing that none of the coaching staff would be retained, although Jim Playfair was offered the head coach position with the Flames new AHL affiliate team, the Abbotsford Heat.
"I'm thankful we had Mike (Keenan)... That's the business right. You're saying you just finished with 98 points but we want to be better. When you're in that top group you want to get to the top of that group," said Sutter.
The search began immediately for the Flames, as Sutter targeted the draft June 26-27 as the deadline for finding a new head coach and staff. At the time, it was widely speculated that Sutter himself would step back behind the bench. Sutter did nothing to quash these rumours when he announced: "Right now I'm the best (candidate)."
When the smoke cleared from the search only one man stood. His name was Sutter, but it was Brent, Darryl's younger brother, and the former coach of the New Jersey Devils, who took the reigns of the Flames. Dave Lowry, Ryan McGill, and Jamie McLennan were named as assistant coaches.
“To me it’s a big day, to be able to get who I think is the best free-agent coach out there," said Darryl Sutter, "And to add the group and see how they’re going to work together is an awesome thing... We wanted them as a group,” said Darryl Sutter.
“All I’ve heard are very positive things about the strength and the breadth of experience and energy that we’re going to get here,” agreed team President Ken King.
Brent Sutter brings an extremely successful track record to the table. He has coached the 2001 Memorial Cup winning team in Red Deer, as well as back-to back undefeated, Gold-medal winning, World Junior squads in 2005 and 2006. As a player, Sutter went to the finals four times, hoisting the Stanley Cup twice. The secret to his success, much like his brother, comes from playing solid defence.
“Defensive hockey for a coach is the easiest part to teach, it’s about everybody being on the same page. Defensive hockey isn’t just about how you play in your own zone, defensive hockey is about how you play in the neutral zone, defensive hockey is how you play in the offensive zone, defensive hockey is a about puck possession time. That starts in practice and you need everyone committed to doing it,” said Brent Sutter, who added that defensive play came from a mindset that exists at points throughout the game.
“A good defensive team doesn’t mean you can’t be a good team offensively either… Players can still flourish offensively, but there is high responsibility defensively when you don’t have the puck in how you do things. That’s their job to make sure it’s implemented.”
With a new coaching staff in place, the Flames management were off to Montreal for the NHL Entry Draft, leaving the Brent Sutter news conference for the airport. As they sat on the clock with the 20th pick, they made their first move of a bust draft weekend, moving the pick to New Jersey for the 23rd and 84th picks.
With the 23rd pick, the Flames drafted Tim Erixon, a huge, two-way defenseman from the Swedish Elite League. Erixon's father is former NHLer Jan Erixon. Sutter had targeted Erixon all along, and was elated to snag him at 23.
"We got the player we wanted; we didn't think he'd still be available," said Sutter. "That's a pretty good hockey team when you look at that national team from Sweden... (Erixon) is a very good skater, sees the ice very well, passes the puck really well and he's probably a bit more mature than most of the kids in that age group, so he was a really good pick for us."
"It's a dream come true and I'm real proud, I hope my family's proud," said Erixon.
As the second day of the draft dawned, the Bell Centre was buzzing when Darryl Sutter traded Jordan Leopold and the 67th overall pick to the Florida Panthers for Jay Bouwmeester
. Bouwmeester was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and was considered by many to be the top free agent available on the market.
The Bouwmeester deal marked the beginning of a busy day for the Flames, who drafted Ryan Howse
, Henrik Bjorklund, Spencer Bennett, Joni Ortio
, and Gaelen Patterson in the latter rounds. The Flames also traded Jim Vandermeer to the Phoenix Coyotes for Brandon Prust.
With only days before July 1, Darryl Sutter had to move fast and make the most of his exclusive negotiating window with Bouwmeester, who was found three hours north in Edmonton, his hometown.
On the eve of free-agency GM's around the league work themselves into a frenzy as they salivate on the potential impact a top free agent may have on their team. Unfortunately for the other 29 teams in the NHL, the player that made their hearts beat fastest wasn't available when the signing period began. By July 1, Jay Bouwmeester
had agreed to a five year deal to play in Calgary.
"He's maybe the best all-around defenseman in the game, both ends of the ice, with or without the puck," said Sutter, who has assembled arguably the most imposing corps of blueliners in the league.
"Age was a critical factor (with Bouwmeester). It's the position of our organization that we've now got to the point where we can keep our defense together for a long time... We got the player we wanted. We prioritized that position and that young man and we're proud to have him."
Bouwmeester, who had played his entire career with the Florida Panthers, was eager to play in a hockey-mad city with a competitive team. When the Flames took the initiative to acquire him at the draft, the decision to sign was not a difficult one.
"When the trade happened it gave you a lot to think about. I was familiar enough with the situation, I know the guys here. I know what kind of people they are. Everyone talked highly of the organization. I know the area and the situation with the fans, how passionate people are about hockey here," said Bouwmeester.
"The attitude here is not try to make the playoffs, it's try to win a championship, and that's all you can ask for… It was a lot to digest in not such a long time, but at the end of the day I thought it was a good fit."
Bouwmeester has seen plenty of his new head coach on the opposing bench, both in his junior days as a Medicine Hat Tiger when Brent Sutter coached the Red Deer Rebels, and as a Panther when Sutter coached the Devils. With camp only weeks away, Bouwmeester is looking forward to sunny days with his new coach and teammates.
"He's a good coach, and that's the verdict no matter who you talk to, and that's exciting. We have a good group of players, he's going to demand a lot and get the most out of us," said Bouwmeester.
"Hopefully I can come in and add another dimension."
The Flames have kept up their fervent pace since the Bouwmeester signing. On July 1 the team came to terms with Adam Pardy, who played a valuable role down the stretch last season. Another valuable role player from last season, Jamie Lundmark, was also re-signed. Darryl Sutter has since imported forwards Fredrik Sjostrom, Garth Murray, and Riley Armstrong.
As for our own prospects, Kyle Greentree and Curtis McElhinney were signed early in the offseason, while Dustin Boyd and Kris Chucko were given qualifying offers as restricted free agents.
With all the additions must come subtractions, and the Flames unfortunately had to say goodbye to free agents Mike Cammalleri
and Adrian Aucoin, who signed new contracts with the Montreal Canadiens and Phoenix Coyotes respectively.
Training camp is still a number of weeks away, and the excitement will undoubtedly grow as the cowboys mosey on out of town and our brief dance with summer ends. Darryl Sutter and co. have put forth a great deal of effort assembling a team deserving of that excitement, if the team can match the effort and desire management seems to possess, the rest of the league is in big, big trouble.