Almost 30 years after starting his NHL head coaching career, Darryl Sutter won his first “Miserable Old Guy” Award Thursday.
That’s how he said players like Gordie Howe referred to Jack Adams, for whom the NHL’s coach of the year award is named.
In that vein, Sutter was the obvious winner, not just for turning the Flames around, but for hosting daily press availabilities that are often as standoffish as Adams was known to be.
“I don’t need that on my resume – some guys do,” shrugged the blunt 63-year-old last month when named a finalist with New York’s Gerard Gallant and Florida’s Andrew Brunette.
“It’s a regular-season award.”
Obviously, he’s right.
If it incorporated playoff success, the NHL broadcasters’ association would have voted for Gallant, who has done wonders to guide the Rangers to a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final.
While Sutter’s Flames took a step by winning a seven-game series over Dallas in the first round, the coach wasn’t able to get the most out of his lads in an exciting, five-game series against Edmonton that ended with four straight Calgary losses.
“It was a hell of a regular season, I think our team took a step in our first round,” agreed GM Brad Treliving, when reflecting upon the positives of the season over the weekend.
“I look at that (Edmonton) series and the team that played the best won the series. What’s empty for me is I don’t think we put our game on the ice. We established an identity and a style of play that I don’t think we — for a number of reasons, and some we’ll have to find out — we never got to it in the second round. You have to acknowledge the opponent, and we’ll figure out why, internally, that didn’t happen.”
A dissection for another day.
On Thursday the focus was on the job Sutter did all regular season.
After missing the playoffs last year, the Flames won the Pacific Division thanks to Sutter’s ability to bring structure and accountability to Calgary.
He has transformed the organization, again, prompting the league to hand him the award Thursday via a video by brother Brian Sutter, who won the award in 1991.
A team that had long been known for its poor starts to games and seasons led the loop in game-opening goals, which was another tip of the cap to Sutter’s ability to prepare players nightly.
The pressure he applied was relentless on a returning core to get more out of their respective games, driving the Flames to be one of the league’s stingiest defensively, while employing a relentless forecheck that made them a treat to watch.
Half the Flames roster had career years, including all six defensemen, and a top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm that combined for 301 points.
Not that any of the lads will be sharing their pending raises with the coach, but credit Sutter for squeezing so much more out of them at both ends of the ice.
“(We met) the standards that are necessary to get some respect back as an organization, as a player back, as a team back, in the league,” said Sutter at his season-ending availability.
“I said this 16 months ago, our fans just want two things: Honesty and hard work, and they don’t always get it from all of you guys (the media) all the time, quite honestly.”
It wouldn’t be a Sutter presser without a shot at the media he counts on so heavily to send messages to his players, and various other targets, daily.
That truculence helped elevate his popularity in a province in which he’s rightfully credited for turning the Flames franchise around not once, but twice.
He’s done it with a hockey mind several steps ahead of most of his peers, incorporating analytics with an old-school background.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence people had career years,” said Treliving, who hired Sutter midway through last season to change the culture.
“He pushes people to achieve things and it’s not always comfortable. Being successful in any walk of life is not easy. Human nature is to survive. It’s just to survive. To be really good is hard, and he pushes people to be really, really good. He’s brought structure, he’s brought accountability to this group and the group’s embraced it.”
Facetiously called the Jolly Rancher for his stone-faced, all-business approach when at the podium or behind the bench, he’s as calculated and sharp as anyone in the game.
In a city where the team is always going to be judged on playoff success that has largely eluded the franchise, he said Wednesday the team reached its baseline goal.
“We said our goal was to be a playoff team and we did that,” said Sutter, who guided his club to the NHL’s hottest finish the last two months despite a Christmas Covid outbreak that sidelined the whole team.
“Then, we had to reset because of the way the schedule was (with) games taken away from us and then the rescheduling. Bottom line, there’s no long-term goals ever reached unless you reach short-term goals and that was a thing as an organization that had to be – for sure – reset. So, we made progress in that. It’s taking that and seeing how we can improve on that.
“It’s good that it hurts at the end, because then they understand it better.”
Sutter helped lift the team to a 50-win, 111-point season that has established a base from which they’ll now operate.
“They’ve sort of set their own bar now,” said Sutter, a two-time Stanley Cup winner.
“The only way you can ever become a Stanley Cup champion is to make the playoffs over and over and over and over, and build on that.”