On April 25, 2015, Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau jumped into each other’s arms at the Saddledome as their underdog Calgary Flames rallied from a three-goal deficit to stun the Vancouver Canucks 7-4, winning the Western Conference Quarterfinal series in six games.
The two, who were 20 and 21 years old, respectively, had just combined for six points in Game 6. A teenage Sam Bennett, chosen fourth overall at the NHL Draft 10 months prior, logged more than 13 minutes of ice time that warm April night. Mikael Backlund, then 26, played 17 minutes. The team captain, Mark Giordano, had been enjoying a Norris-calibre season before a torn bicep ended his season in February.
Three days after that celebration, Calgary general manager Brad Treliving toasted his one-year anniversary on the job presiding over one of the league’s most exciting young teams. While the Flames would go on to lose the next round to the Anaheim Ducks, coach Bob Hartley would merit the Jack Adams Award that summer as the NHL’s coach of the year.
“Being around the group, I don’t know if you’re amazed, but you continue to be proud of what they do,” Treliving told the Calgary Herald at the time.
Little did Treliving know how fleeting that scene at the Saddledome would be.
As Monahan, Gaudreau, Backlund, Bennett and Giordano get set to play for Darryl Sutter, their fifth head coach in six seasons, that moment of euphoria following their first-round playoff series victory serves as the summit of their collective accomplishments. The Saddledome has been eerily quiet in the years since, with the faint sound of unfulfilled potential lingering in its concourse as the team has failed to have any sort of playoff success.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes the collective underachievement of the Flames more than the number of coaches that have gone through the Stampede City in the last six years. There have been stern taskmasters in Hartley and Bill Peters, and friendlier voices that valued two-way communication in Geoff Ward – who was fired late Thursday – and Glen Gulutzan.
Enter – or, more accurately, re-enter – Sutter, whose reputation is far more the former than it is the latter.
In his opening press conference on Friday, Sutter used the term “unfinished business” to describe his return to Calgary. He led the Flames to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final – the franchise’s only extended playoff run in 20-plus years – the memories and heartache of which are still apparently fresh.
“It’s still really clear in my mind losing the Stanley Cup Final with the team and thinking about it on the flight home from Tampa,” the 62-year-old Sutter said on Friday.
The Viking, Alta., native coached the Flames from 2002 to 2006 and also served as the club’s general manager from 2003 to 2010.
“The biggest strengths I see in Darryl is his ability to be very clear, the clarity he provides players in terms of their roles, the expectations, and the standards of the organization,” said Treliving who has inked high-profile free agents such as Chris Tanev and James Neal over the years, and pulled off blockbuster trades that have brought in the likes of Elias Lindholm and Travis Hamonic in a bid to reboot his team. After years of perpetual questions about netminding, the club signed the best one on the market in Jacob Markstrom last fall but the former Vancouver Canuck has missed several games lately with a lower-body injury.
‘If you look back at his track record, he maximizes player performance.”
With Sutter signed to a three-year contract, there will be coaching stability with the Flames for the first time in years. The onus now shifts directly to the players to salvage a season that began with heightened expectations and has so steadily veered off course.
“Churning coaches is not something that leads to success, but the message is that the coach they’ve got now isn’t going anywhere,” Treliving said.
“I’ve seen a lot of coaches here,” Backlund said. “It’s always disappointing every time a coach gets let go.”
Sutter’s first practice will likely be Tuesday and his return to the bench is set for Thursday when the Flames host the Montreal Canadiens. Assistant coach Ryan Huska will manage the bench against the Oilers Saturday night in Edmonton and versus the Ottawa Senators on Sunday in Calgary.
As for Sutter, he will be tasked with fixing a group that has talked about the need to compete more, increase their emotional engagement, and play for one another.
Veteran Flames forward Milan Lucic has touched on those themes this season and played a season under Sutter in Los Angeles.
While much of the perception surrounding Sutter – who was behind the L.A. bench from 2011 to 2017 – is that he’s old-school, in-your-face, and distant from players, Lucic saw a different version of the man with the Kings.
“That’s one thing about Darryl he might not get a lot of credit for,” Lucic said. “He’s a big family person. He cares a lot about players and their families.”
In the spring of 2015, Lucic experienced the passing of his father, followed by the birth of his second child, and then his trade from Boston to Los Angeles.
“That’s three big things that happened to me in a short amount of time,” he said. “The way Darryl brought me in and made me feel good about myself was a real big part of my success in L.A.”
With Sutter, who won Stanley Cups with the Kings in 2012 and 2014, also comes an increase in accountability.
“He wants you to compete hard and work hard and when he gets the best out of his players and the most out of his players, that’s when you get the results,” Lucic said. “Ultimately, we’re in the business of winning and the daily grind is hard with Darryl because he expects a lot out of you on a day-to-day basis but when you get the results and you’re winning, it’s worth it.”
Despite the optimism that tends to follow coaching changes, the expectations in Calgary to replicate those feats of spring 2015 remain present.
Surely, as he celebrated that playoff success with his teammates six years ago, Backlund could not have imagined just how tough it would be to get there again.
“I’m not proud saying I’ve been here for so long and have had so many coaches,” he said, “because that means we haven’t been successful enough.”