As the weeks of summer begin to wane, the Calgary Flames are preparing to go into next season firmly entrenched as a Stanley Cup contending team.
Despite the disappointing ending to last season, Flames general manager Darryl Sutter’s bold moves this summer have refocused the team on the defensive end, while re-energizing a fan base desperate for another extended playoff run.
This is Sutter’s sixth offseason as the absolute ruler of the Flames, and while he beams with pride at the current team he has constructed, he is equally proud to have developed a system within the Flames organization for continually producing quality hockey players. The continual stream of talent has allowed Sutter to invigorate the veteran line-up with some youthful exuberance, a process he feels is essential to the team’s success.
“We didn’t lose players because we didn’t like them; we had young players coming in the organization that were going to take their place. I’ve always said that it’s about how you sustain (success) for a long period of time,” said Sutter.
“We continue to try to put that young guy, that guy who’s developing, into the line-up, and that’s what everyone wants to do.”
The strategy of incorporating young players incrementally has worked favourably for the Flames during the Sutter regime; this has allowed the Flames to develop their prospects at their own pace. For Sutter, patience with young players is key, as nature must be allowed to take its course.
“There are growing pains no matter where (players) come out of. It doesn’t matter if they come out of junior, if they come out of Europe or if they come out of College. The first year is more about learning to be a pro off ice than on ice. The coaching staff has to really work with the players in those areas,” said Sutter.
“Every camp I’ve been involved in, the 18 year olds come in and they’re behind the 19 year olds, that’s a fact.”
While developing young athletes into puck annihilating machines is a delicate process that takes time, watching players during their formative years is a part of the game that Sutter takes special pleasure in. The annual Flames prospect camp, recently held at the Saddledome, gave Sutter an opportunity to see the fruits of his labour firsthand.
“You know what; this is a young man’s game. We’ve been able to remain a top team for four or five years with our veteran presence, but we’ve tried to move forward with these younger players. To see them now, you can legitimately take five or six guys out of (Prospect Camp) and say they have a shot to make your hockey club, that’s where you want to go,” said Sutter.
“The best part about these camps in the summer is you see kids you maybe only see once a year practice, and you see there development and improvement just over the course of the week and that’s important because then you can see where their development is going down the road.”
Fortunately for Sutter, he will have a much easier time getting to see his prospects, as this summer also saw the Flames name the Abbotsford Heat as their new American Hockey League Affiliate. Less than an hour’ flight from Calgary, and under the steady leadership of former Flames associate head coach Jim Playfair, the new farm team should make the Flames development apparatus even more efficient.
“We can put eight NHL lines together, easy. However you want to look at it,” said Sutter. “We’re going to have a really good, young defence ( in Abbotsford). That’s the thing that jumps out at you the most is the defensemen… That’s neat to see.”
One player Sutter will be keeping especially close tabs on is Kris Chucko, the Flames first round pick in 2004 (24th overall). Sutter has been impressed with Chucko’s progress last season, and anticipates another step forward this coming year.
“(Chucko) has found the offensive confidence that he needed last year, he played a lot, and he played in those offensive situations. Hopefully he can continue to grow,” said Sutter. “He’s a kid who had to learn a lot about the off-ice part of the game, and he’s done a good job.”
The recent prospect camp provided Sutter with his first solid look at his most recent draft class. Lost in the uproar surrounding the Jay Bouwmeester
trade during the draft weekend was another sound collection of talent by Sutter, who continued to solidify his team for the next generation. While the players he drafted are now property of the Flames, the depth of our system will allow the new blood to continue to develop in their comfort zone for at least another season, before they begin their acceleration into the NHL.
“The thing that impresses you most about those kids is they’re 18 years old, and how knowledgeable they are about the world, and their English. They’re all skilled guys and they’re going to get better,’ said Sutter.
“Tim (Erixon)’s going to play against men, play on the world stage again and he’s just going to develop. When he’s ready to come over and play he will, you can see that with him. Hank (Henrik Bjorklund) has a lot of work to do and I think if he wanted to play junior in a year from now that that would be fine. Joni (Ortio) has a year left on his contract (in Finland). My preference would be that he played junior this year but he couldn’t, so we’ll see next year.”
With the core of the team locked up and firmly entrenched for the foreseeable future, the Flames’ prospects will have to practice the same kind of patience their boss does. Sutter’s player development strategy has worked well for the team up to this point, now it’s time for the players to do their part to make sure the Flames ship is sailing smoothly towards the sunshine.