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Sutter aims for offensive, defensive middle ground

by Adam Kimelman /
In his first season behind the Calgary Flames bench, coach Brent Sutter went through the full range of emotions. The Flames started 7-2-1 and averaged 4.0 goals per game. Then they hit a patch that saw them lose 10 in a row in January and slide down the Northwest Division and Western Conference standings. They never were far from a playoff spot, but a four-game season-ended losing streak saw them finish 10th in the conference.

Despite the off-season addition of all-star defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and getting an MVP-caliber season from goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, the Flames missed the playoffs by five points. Their offense was anemic, as they finished with just 201 goals, fewest in the Western Conference, and 26th on the power play. They also lost 15 one-goal games, tied for the most in the League.

Defensively, however, the team improved, cutting their goals-against by 43 goals last season from 2008-09 -- the 203 goals allowed were the fifth-fewest in the League. And despite losing their final four games -- two were one-goal affairs -- their defense kept them that close to still making the playoffs despite their offensive struggles.

"What happened was there was a lot of focus on defense and improving that part of the game and we certainly did that. Maybe that hurt us on the offensive side. Now that we understand how we have to play on the defensive side, we have to find ways to create more offense. Our power play is an area that needs to get better."
-- Brent Sutter

Sutter, getting ready for his second season with the Flames, took time out from his preparations to talk to about what happened last season and what's going to be different about 2010-11.

NHL.COM: Now that you've had a summer to think about it, can you talk about what went wrong last season?

SUTTER:  I think our start last year, we had a really good start to the season. We had a tough stretch there, we lost 10 games in a row and we played some pretty good hockey, we just weren't scoring. That really hurt us. We were losing games 1-0, 2-1. And there was a stretch there we played as well as we had at any point of the season, we just didn't score any goals. That really affected the confidence level of some guys. We didn't seem to gain any consistency after that. We won games, but we couldn't put a string of games together. We were still in the hunt at that time, but we couldn't put things together and ...  we'd win two of three and lose two of three, we couldn't get on track.

When you look back on the season, it was a learning experience for everyone. It certainly showed that we need to get better both as individuals and as a team. That includes everybody -- coaches, players, everybody. I think it really showed things we need to work on to get improved and be better, and certain things, our team game, team play, our specialty teams have to be better. There's no reason why this group can not do it. Our job as coaches is to do everything we can to get them where they need to be. And as players they have to want to do that, too, to move forward, so the organization can have more success.

NHL.COM: What can you do, from a coaching standpoint, to generate more offense?

SUTTER:  Going into last year there was so much stressed about being a better defensive team and we were. As a team we were 26th the year before and we were in the top seven in the League. Take away our last game and we had a chance to finish in the top four. What happened was there was a lot of focus on defense and improving that part of the game and we certainly did that. Maybe that hurt us on the offensive side. Now that we understand how we have to play on the defensive side, we have to find ways to create more offense. Our power play is an area that needs to get better. We need to capitalize ...  our power play needs to be able to win us games and score some key goals for us at certain times.

NHL.COM: How do you accent the offense without losing the defensive side of things? How do you keep the pendulum from swinging too far to one side again?

SUTTER: It's accountability. That includes everybody. We worked hard to become a good team without the puck. We have to do a better job of managing the puck when we have it. We have to create more speed in certain areas of the game and certain areas of the ice to allow offense to come off the rush. Defensive play is not ...  it has a lot to do with both ends, with the puck and without the puck. So does offensive play. We need to create offense when we have the puck. We have to get into areas to make things happen. Players play more of a speed game that I like to see us play, play a more attacking game. That's the offensive side of it. The defensive side, when we don't have the puck, everyone knows what their responsibilities are and what they need to do. There is a fine line. We have to keep it there. So you have the strength of both to allow yourself to have success.

NHL.COM: How can the additions of Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay help in creating more offense?

SUTTER: I think both are coming off average years. I just think the motivational factor of them wanting to get their games back can help us. Hopefully a guy like Tanguay can help Jarome (Iginla) get his game back to where he needs to be because he's a playmaker and Jarome is more of a shooter. I think with both those guys, we need them to play well and they should be motivated to play well. But it's not about two individuals, it's about the team and we need to be better and have a good start to the season, but be consistent throughout the year.

NHL.COM: Were you surprised on July 1 when Olli Jokinen re-signed with the club?

SUTTER: I have no issues with Olli at all. I thought Olli at times last year took the brunt of things he shouldn't have.  A lot of people were on him, media-like. I thought it was unfair in certain ways. Fingers got pointed at him a lot and sometimes it was pointed in the wrong direction. That's OK. Olli grew up from it, and he'll be a better player for it. I had no issues at all with Olli last year. You want players to play to the best of their capabilities. It's just a consistency part of his game on a nightly basis that has to be there for us. But that's the same for everyone. As far as what led into the question, whenever you can add a centerman to your hockey team that's 6-foot-3 and that can skate and plays for the most part pretty hard, you're hoping it adds to your team. You look at the strength of our hockey team, we've got a great goaltender and our defense is decent, but you look at our center ice position and it's pretty strong there with the guys we have, deep down the middle, and now it's about getting performances from those guys like they've done at different points of their careers.

NHL.COM: Can Tanguay and Jokinen coming back help Jarome Iginla get back to being an elite-level player?

SUTTER: No. 1 is Jarome's not getting any younger and there's high expectations placed on Jarome, but I think there's too much focus placed on Jarome. As an organization and downstairs in our dressing room, we have to focus on the team. Jarome's play will help the team have success if his play is where it should be. Where those standards are, we don't know. Is he a 40-goal scorer? Is he a 50-goal scorer? That's to be determined. There's too much focus on one guy right or wrong and that's who it is. As a coach I'd like the focus to be put on the whole group. Yes, he's been a cornerstone in this franchise, but we have some pretty good young players coming in that can help carry the load and take some of the load off Jarome. Jarome knows what he needs to do, and yet we as a team need to look at it as we all have to compete at the highest standards we can, and that includes Jarome and everyone else.

NHL.COM: Do you think Jay Bouwmeester put too much pressure on himself last season?

SUTTER: At the end of the day it was a change coming to Calgary. Expectations are a lot different. Not just with him, but on the other side, just the hockey culture in Canada. I believe Jay will be a better player as far as consistency level, and be able to put up more than 3 goals for us. Last year was a new stage in Jay Bouwmeester's career as far as the way it is in Canada and the way it is in Calgary compared to Miami. You can't go anywhere without hockey being talked about. Having been out of the area for seven years, he's come back. He knew what it was like, but until you're actually in it you're still unsure. He'll be better. Obviously the organization stepped up big time and went after him and got him, now we need Jay to play up to his standards. We have high expectations of him to give more production than he did on the goal side, but overall as a player, just being a good player for us. He's a very underrated player defensively. He's a better defensive player than people give him credit for, but because of his standards as a defenseman, there's pressure on him to produce offensively. Where that number is no one knows. Throughout his career it's been at different points. We expect him to score more than 3 goals for us this season and he should, too.

NHL.COM: Does he have to change anything in his game or his approach to be better this season?

SUTTER: (Consistency) is part of it. Don't put the weight of the world on his shoulders and just go play. Allow the strengths of what he is as a player to flourish within our team game. Some of that is, as far as coaches, allowing him to do so, too. Changing things, we've got a pretty mobile defense with him, (Mark) Giordano and (Ian) White. Those guys are pretty good with their skating abilities. You look at your defense, it's a pretty solid group, it's a good mix of guys. Yet it's them flourishing within themselves and what they are as players and as coaches allowing them to do so, but with an understanding that there is a team game in place. And there's a certain way we need to play.

NHL.COM: Kiprusoff had a great year last season, but do you worry about relying on him too much?

SUTTER: That was all the speculation on the outside because of us not scoring enough goals. Defensively we were a better team. When you look at the quality scoring chances this team gave up, and Kipper will be the first to tell you, they were cut in half from what he was used to. But when you're not scoring enough, instead of giving up 18, 19, 20 quality scoring chances, you're giving up eight, nine, 10, they're magnified when you're not producing things offensively. That's really what it was. I don't look at it as Miikka being a savior at all. He just needs to keep being a good goaltender for us. There were a lot of games where we weren't scoring any goals and we were losing games 1-0 or 2-1 and he was only getting nine or 10 scoring chances. Good teams defensively, that's their benchmark. Most teams that are in the top-10 in the League, they keep their chances down, but we weren't scoring so that magnifies it. That's a fair assessment on the outside, but it's really not a true stat as far as what actually took place.

NHL.COM: Is it fair to expect him to have a similar season in 2010-11?

SUTTER: It's a big difference when you have a goaltender that can stop nine or 10 scoring chances. We're not a team that's going to win 7-5 hockey games. We need to be a responsible team without the puck. We just need to find more offense in our game. And our power play has to produce for us. You look at teams around the League ...  at the start of the year we had the most goals in the League. We were 4.4 goals per game, and our power play was in the top five. All of a sudden things went dry on the offensive side and we're averaging under two goals per game. Our power play dropped significantly. Our power play needs to be better; we need our power play to be better, and our penalty killing. If you want to be a good team, you need your specialty teams to be better. Any team that has success has good goaltending. You need to have a goaltender that can make the saves for you at key times, and Miikka did that, but we weren't able to score goals at key times.

NHL.COM: Which young players do you see having a significant impact this season?

SUTTER:  I think when you look at your defense, Giordano came into his own and he has to continue to grow from that. Ian White, Jay Bouwmeester, these are not old players, they're in the prime of their careers, they're in the 26, 27 age group. They're young players, young defensemen still. Those three guys need to give us production on the back end.

We have a lot of players offensively that didn't have the years they're capable of having. We need them to get to those levels. We need a kid like Mikael Backlund, who we think is gifted in a lot of different areas, we think he can come in and play at a high level for us. He certainly did that last year for (23) games; now he needs to carry on from that. He's a guy that can add some off flair to our game. It's getting improvement from a lot of guys.

NHL.COM: What does this team have to do to get back to the playoffs?

SUTTER:  I think that the No. 1 thing is we need to be better offensively. We need to score more goals. At the end, we need to find that line where we know what we can do defensively, we need to know what we need to do with the puck offensively, and we need our specialty teams to be better.

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