March 2021 has set the stage for April 2022.
Darryl Sutter readily allowed that when he was hired as the new head coach of the Calgary Flames midway through last season, he did not think the team would make the playoffs.
He was right. The Flames finished fifth in the all-Canadian North Division – four points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the final playoff spot – after the pandemic-shortened 56-game 2020-21 season.
A self-admitted “Flames fan” before he was repatriated, Sutter’s objective over that stretch was instead to remake the culture of a franchise that had won just a single playoff series since making it to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final (a team Sutter himself coached). That culture transformation included how the players practiced and prepared, nutritional habits, and off-season fitness. The results of this metamorphosis, Sutter hopes, will be on full display for the hockey world during the 2022 playoffs.
Tuesday marks the next phase of the Flames’ culture remake – one that began 13 months ago and, Sutter, the diehard fan, hopes ends with a Stanley Cup parade. The Flames face the Dallas Stars in Round 1, with Games 1 and 2 set for Tuesday and Thursday in Calgary.
Sutter summed up the franchise’s shift recently as the group went from a relief mindset (relieved when they won) to a belief mindset (believing they could win) – and achieving sustained success would not come by outscoring opponents night after night, but in playing effectively away from the puck night after night.
“You have to have a foundation of accountability and checking and, at the same time, there still has to be freedom for the players in terms of using their skillsets,” he said.
“If you’re not a well-trained organization, you won’t make the playoffs. That’s No.1. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re the best player in the National Hockey League or wherever you think you fit if you’re not well-trained. It’s the one advantage you give yourself every night; you can be one shift better, five per cent energy better, that’s an advantage anyone can give themselves. That’s why guys have bad years that are top guys.”
Calgary leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau said Sutter and former Flames head coach Bob Hartley are similar when it comes to how much they expect from their players.
“I don’t think we’ve had a coach like him in Calgary for a long time,” he said.
“Demanding of their teams, expect a lot out of players…he’s done a great job with our team and brought our group together.”
“I think coming to work every day and expecting to win, preparing to win, practicing to win,” defenceman Chris Tanev said recently of changes from last season.
“I think he’s changed that all dramatically. Every day is a new day. Regardless of what happened yesterday, you move forward and expect to win the next day…When you’re at practice, you’re expected to make tape-to-tape passes, work hard, skate, and then prepare for the next game,” said Tanev. “It just becomes a big cycle where you play, reset, and expect to win and try to get better every day at what you can improve on what the team can improve on. ”
The dramatic changes in Calgary this season have caught the attention of other NHL players.
“I look at Calgary this year and their coach there, and I don’t know what people say about him, that he might be hard-nosed, but he holds guys accountable there,” Winnipeg Jets forward Paul Stastny said, unprompted, when asked what the Jets need to change going forward.
“You look at those guys there, they play a whole different game than they did last year. They’re a more dangerous team and play a complete team game. When a good team game follows, all the individual success goes along with it.”
SPARKS OFF THE FIRE
-While the Flames and Stars met in the bubble during the 2020 playoffs, Dallas head coach Rick Bowness is not looking at film from that series, saying that this Calgary team with Sutter at the helm is entirely different. Beyond the coaching change, he pointed to the signing of goalie Jacob Markstrom, saying it was a “huge and great move.”
-Calgary is far from a one-line team, with depth scoring top to bottom. One player that’s flown under the radar is Dillon Dube, who has quietly put together a solid season on the third line. He ended the season with eight goals in 10 games and, as Darryl Sutter put it, is a big-game player. He’ll start the playoffs on the third line with Calle Jarnkrok and veteran Blake Coleman, and get some power-play time, and that role seems likely to grow.
-At times during the regular season, Sutter had Trevor Lewis on the second line with Mikael Backlund and Coleman, including games against high-offensive teams in Colorado and Edmonton. That trio gives the Flames a different defensive matchup option, and could be reunited…especially at home where the coach can dictate line matchups.
-Similar to Dube, Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson have quietly blossomed away from the spotlight. At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds and 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, respectively, they’ll be a force for opposing players and have a greater impact the deeper Calgary goes.
Expected Calgary lineup for Game 1:
Expected Dallas lineup for Game 1