Unlike his first go-around with the Calgary Flames in the mid-aughts, Darryl Sutter is not the general manager of this team. But make no mistake; as training camp ramps up, the gruff rancher’s fingerprints can be found all over this club as the head coach looks to turn the Flames around in his first full season behind the bench. In his first press conference since full camp opened, Sutter touched on a wide range of topics, but the one that really popped for me was the confidence he has in his former Los Angeles Kings players.
Lucic, Richardson & Lewis Start Training Camp on the 4th Unit
There’s certainly no guarantee the Flames’ opening night lineup is already set in stone, but right now Sutter has three very familiar faces slotted into the fourth unit: Milan Lucic, Brad Richardson, and Trevor Lewis. You could call these guys the “L.A. Express,” or “All the King’s Men,” or even the more apt “Three Old Muckers.”
Whatever you call them, all three skaters spent time with the two-time Stanley Cup winning coach in Los Angeles, and all three are expected to add veteran leadership and accountability to the bottom six. When asked about his personal association to these players, Sutter bristled, telling reporters the affinity he feels towards these forwards isn’t about a past player/coach connection they all share with him.
“No, they didn’t (have a connection to him). They have connections with winning and experience and that’s what it is, right? If you just look at that one line with Brad, Looch and Trevor — those would be they guys I have connections with, but the connection is, they have four Stanley Cups. This organization needs that.”Head coach Darryl Sutter
Sutter would go on to say that every one of these guys has earned a reputation of playing the right way in the playoffs, which is a commodity this team has been sorely lacking in recent years. The Flames have a well-documented history of flaming out early in the postseason, so it looks like general manager Brad Treliving has gone all-in on building a defence-first, Sutter-style roster that requires it’s players to adapt and play different roles when needed.
Sutter Needs His Depth Players to Accept the Roles He Gives Them
Sutter thinks he can find the right roles for his new additions, and applauded the Flames’ recent signings for being adaptable pieces of Stanley Cup-winning teams: “A guy like Trevor went from playing on a top checking line, then within a year, playing fewer minutes on a fourth line,” he added. “Guys accept roles and guys maximize their skill sets in their roles, and those (players) we brought in are all capable and have done that.”
I know we’re only a few days into training camp, but all of this high praise points to Sutter already penciling in these guys into the fourth unit. It’s no secret that Calgary’s bench boss values veteran players who can seamlessly slide into his system, so that likely leaves all of the Flames’ hotshot prospects on the outside looking in. Regardless if any of the youngsters can crack this roster, the biggest question remains — will the fourth line be any better than last year?
The Flames’ Fourth Line Was in Disarray Last Season
For the first couple of months of the 2020-21 Flames’ season, the fourth line was in complete disarray, providing shoddy defence and zero offence. Just how bad was the scoring? From January to early March, Josh Leivo, Joakim Nordstrom, Dominick Simon, Derek Ryan, Byron Froese, Glen Gawdin, Buddy Robinson, Brett Richie and Zac Rinaldo combined for 73 games played. During that time, this entire group posted a grand total of one goal and three assists.
It didn’t matter what combination of players the Flames’ coaching staff trotted out. Nothing seemed to work, and when dependable starting center Ryan missed significant time due to injury, it only made matters worse. Because Ryan signed with the Edmonton Oilers and most of the depth signings from last season were not brought back, the fourth unit will definitely have a brand new look this season. With Sutter on board for a full training camp and traditional 82-game schedule, I expect he’ll have a lot more success implementing his systems. Players like Richardson and Lewis might be new to the squad, but they aren’t new to Sutter hockey, so they will definitely have a leg up.
While I don’t expect the new-look fourth line to set the world on fire offensively, I do expect it to be considerably better than last year. Sutter’s old-school coaching style and prickly demeanour may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but let’s not forget about his track record. In 2004, he managed to take a Flames team with only two star players to a Stanley Cup Final. In 2012, he completely turned around an underachieving Kings squad and now he has two rings. He routinely makes his good players better and somehow squeezes something positive out of his mediocre players.
I’m looking forward to watching a fourth line outwork their opponent on a nightly basis, and If anyone can get the best out of three aging veterans, I think it’s Sutter. I fully expect “All the King’s Men” to play some boring but responsible hockey when the puck finally drops on the Flames’ 2021-22 season on Oct. 16.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.