On Mar. 5, 2021, the Calgary Flames announced they were firing then-head coach Geoff Ward, and replacing him with an old familiar face in Darryl Sutter. While it was clear that things weren’t working under Ward, many were surprised that general manager Brad Treliving chose to go with Sutter, an old-school coach who hadn’t been in the league since the 2016-17 season.
As we all know, hockey is an evolving game, and sometimes coaches, just like players, aren’t able to adapt with the times. Take Ken Hitchcock as an example. The 69-year-old is regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time, but most thought his time was well past when the Edmonton Oilers chose to hire him during 2018-19 as a midseason replacement for Todd McLellan. Fans and media were correct to question that decision, as the Oilers played to a lousy 26-28-8 record to close out the season under Hitchcock.
There were some who questioned if the same would happen for Sutter. The 63-year-old is known as a defensive-minded coach and likes his players to play a conservative-styled game, something that isn’t seen often in today’s NHL.
Sutter Proving His Coaching Wisdom
Sutter wasn’t able to turn the Flames around in 2020-21 as was hoped, as they went just 15-15-0 with him to end the season. Many were still quite hesitant on Sutter as a result, but the optimistic look from some was that perhaps if he had a training camp with this group, he would be able to fully instill both his message and systems and get them going in the right direction.
Those with that opinion are being proven correct. Through 20 games this season, the Flames sit at an extremely impressive 12-3-5 for 29 points, which is leading the Pacific Division. The inconsistencies, and at times, lack of effort we seen from this group just a season ago are no longer, as they appear to be fully bought in to Sutter’s system.
One of the biggest areas this is evident is in terms of their defensive play. There has been a ton of credit that has gone out to the goaltending duo of Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar, and for good reason as the two have combined for a ridiculous seven shutouts on the season. However, as good as they have been, the credit deserves to be given as much to Sutter, if not more.
Sutter has turned this Flames squad into a tight-checking team who gives up very few scoring opportunities. Not only are they the fifth-lowest team in shots against per game at 29.4, but a good percentage of those shots are low danger scoring opportunities, which an elite goalie like Markstrom has no problem turning aside. As of now, they have given up just 104 high danger scoring chances against. To put into considering just how solid that is, the Vegas Golden Knights, who many considered a Stanley Cup contender heading into the season, have given up 171.
Flames Finding Success Offensively
Oftentimes, playing a very defensive style of game can lead to a lack of offence for a team. That hasn’t been the case for the Flames this season. In fact, their offence has been amongst the league’s best, as their 3.40 goals per game sits seventh amongst all 32 teams. Leading the way is Johnny Gaudreau who is playing his best hockey since the 2018-19 season with 23 points in 20 games.
Gaudreau hasn’t done the heavy lifting on his own either, as Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Andrew Mangiapane are all right around a point-per-game pace. Mangiapane in particular has been electric, as he already has an absurd 15 goals on the year and should destroy his career-high 18, which he set a season prior.
In 2020-21, this group struggled to get offence from their back end, as only Mark Giordano and Rasmus Andersson cracked the 20-point barrier. That hasn’t been the case this season, as Oliver Kylington appears to have the confidence of Sutter and is off to a start no one had imagined with 12 points in 19 games. Andersson is also off to a very solid start with 11 helpers on the year.
Contenders in the Pacific
Very early into the 2021-22 season, some questioned if the Flames were for real or had just gotten off to a hot start. Now that we are a quarter way through, it is becoming quite evident that this is a much-improved team from a season prior. What makes it so incredible is that there wasn’t a ton of roster changes. In fact, it could be argued they got worse on paper given the loss of Giordano. Their improvement, it seems, falls directly on the shoulders of Sutter, and has him in serious contention for his first-ever Jack Adams Award.
Colton Pankiw is a former Jr. A hockey player who now provides his knowledge of the game through writing. He’s been a very active and reliable source for nearly two years at The Hockey Writers. He is a credentialed writer for the Calgary Flames but also does features on other teams throughout the league. Other writing contributions include: Yahoo Sports, Las Vegas Chronicle, Oil On Whyte, and Markerzone.com. Colton is also a co-host of both Oilers Overtime and Flames Faceoff podcasts. Any interview requests or content info can be made through him on Twitter. Take a look at his work here.