When the Los Angeles Kings completed what is possibly the most dominating post season appearance in the last decade of the NHL, Darryl Sutter became just the 5th coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after being hired mid-season. While this was also done recently in 2009 by Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sutter’s road to the Stanley Cup was much more unlikely. He took over a Kings team that was floundering offensively and barely treading water in the Western Conference playoff race and coached them to a Stanley Cup victory in just 20 playoff games. While Sutter’s Kings certainly put together a historically memorable run, his first foray into the Cup Finals is certainly still fresh in the minds of many Calgary Flames fans 8 years later. Sutter turned the downtrodden Flames into an enticing Cinderella story during the 2004 playoffs and it would ironically be the reputation gained from this run that would eventually lead to his fall from grace in Calgary, allowing him to become a championship coach in California.
Sutter was hired by the Flames midway through the 2002-2003 season, but by the time of his arrival the team was unable to find enough success to earn a playoff appearance. The team finished with a 19-18-8-1 record under Sutter but an overall of 29-36-13-4 which was good for only 75 points. The team did show marked improvement under Sutter, although it was nearly universally believed that outside of established superstar Jarome Iginla the Flames were not a championship calibre team. Regular season scoring statistics suggested as much, as Iginla far and away led the 2003-2004 Flames in points production with 41 goals and 73 points. Craig Conroy was second, as he totaled 47 points centering Iginla in 63 games. Despite this, the team was a defensive dynamo thanks to Sutter’s coaching style and trade acumen, as early in the season he snagged Miikka Kiprusoff from the San Jose Sharks for a 2nd Round Pick. At the time, Kiprusoff was a third stringer behind strong San Jose netminders Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala who was unlikely to play. Thrust into a starting role after Flames goalie Roman Turek struggled, Kiprusoff put together an amazing season. He finished 24-10-4 with a .933 save percentage and a modern-day record 1.70 goals against average. Strong seasons from Iginla and Kiprusoff led the Flames to their first playoff appearance since 1995-1996, ending a 7-season drought with a 19-point improvement and a 42-30-7-3 record. This was also their first 40-win season since 1993-1994, a relatively amazing accomplishment that elevated Sutter to a pedestal of adoration.
The true harbinger of Sutter’s seemingly untouchable status after the NHL lockout was the playoff run that followed up the Flames surprising season. Pegged by many to be first round fodder for the Northwest Division Champion Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference’s #3 vs. #6 matchup, the Flames instead fought off a lopsided Game 1 loss and a heart-breaking triple overtime Game 6 setback to trump the Canucks in a Game 7 overtime. Martin Gelinas’ overtime tally marked the Flames first playoff victory in 15 years with the last coming against the Montreal Canadiens in 1989- the series that saw them win their first and currently only Stanley Cup. The Flames would go on to defeat the best team in the NHL that season, the Detroit Red Wings, in a 6-game series that would also be ended by Gelinas in dramatic overtime fashion. Kiprusoff would then shut down the #2 seed and his former teammates in the Western Final against San Jose, setting the stage for a Stanley Cup Final with the #1 team in the east, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Sutter’s Flames would ultimately lose to the Lightning in 7 hard fought games, even losing a potential series clinching Game 6 on a controversial missed goal call. Despite the setback, the Flames popularity surged with the run and the reputation of Darryl Sutter benefitted accordingly. He was praised in media and amongst the fans for returning the franchise to respectability and is largely responsible for the most recent Flames accomplishments, including the 2005-2006 Northwest Division Championship.
Sutter’s reputation began to diminish after 2005-2006, when he relinquished his coaching duties and opted to focus on the General Manager role. Questionable signings such as Jason Weimer, Jeff Friesen, Andrei Zyuzin, and Tony Amonte were quietly criticized but the increasing extravagance of his trades left many fans disappointed and confused. His acquisition of Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew was lauded due to the popularity of Ference while his peddling of Dion Phaneuf, and Primeau to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White, and Jamal Mayers allowed for the Flames fan base to openly loathe the manager unquestioned.
While he certainly had his management miscues in Southern Alberta, Darryl Sutter’s coaching was certainly never suspect. This is now something fans of the Los Angeles Kings know while Calgary will enter this upcoming season with their 4th coach since Sutter relinquished his duties. The Kings fans will spend their summer reveling in a championship aura while Flames fans will quietly bemoan the best coach they’ve had in over 15 years.