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Eric Duhatschek

Sutter mulls putting himself on Calgary's coaching hot seat Add to ...

On the day when the Edmonton Oilers plotted a firm new direction for their organization, their provincial counterparts, the Calgary Flames, signalled their intention to wander down an old familiar path.

Who is surprised?

Even though he didn't come right out and say so, Flames general manager Darryl Sutter broadly hinted that he would be back behind the bench as the NHL team's head coach next season.

Sutter spoke at length yesterday about his reasons for firing coach Mike Keenan last Friday - notification came late in the day in a brusque four-paragraph e-mail - until finally the question was asked: Is he a candidate to coach the team again?

"Right now, I'm the best one," Sutter answered, to laughs all around.

Deciphering Sutter's message is often a tricky undertaking, given the hard kernels of information are usually buried in the midst of long rambling answers, but a few facts did emerge yesterday.

The Flames have cut ties with all remaining members of Keenan's staff except for Jim Playfair, who was offered a job coaching the Flames' new AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C.

Ryan McGill, who previously coached the farm team, would likely end up on Sutter's NHL staff (assuming Sutter does go back behind the bench again after a three-year hiatus).

Sutter wants his full coaching staff in place by the 2009 NHL entry draft, which gives him exactly one month to interview any potential candidates for the position, three of whom Sutter identified as currently under contract to other NHL teams.

He wouldn't specify if his brother, Brent, the New Jersey Devils head coach, is one of the three. Brent Sutter is re-evaluating his career options and may not return to the Devils next season for family and business reasons.

Still, it is hard to imagine any scenario other than Sutter going back behind the bench and proving to his employers, once and for all, that the team he built and developed is as good as he thinks it is and is capable of making some playoff noise.

Sutter reminded the assembled reporters that in his last season as the team's coach, 2005-06, the Flames won the Northwest Division with 103 points - their highest total in 15 years - and had adapted well to life in the new postlockout NHL. That year, however, they lost in the opening round of the playoffs to the Anaheim Ducks after leading the best-of-seven series 3-2, the first of four consecutive defeats in the opening round.

Sutter talked at length yesterday about what went wrong with the team last season, and why Keenan needed to go (largely because of the Flames' mediocre defensive record: 23rd overall in the NHL, 13th in the Western Conference, and poorest among the teams that qualified for postseason competition).

"That goes against what I believe in," said Sutter, who had the No. 1 defensive team in the league in 2004, when the Flames unexpectedly qualified for the Stanley Cup final, the only time in the past 20 years they've won as much as a single round.

Sutter added he probably would have fired Keenan even if the Flames had defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round this year on the grounds that with their poor defensive record, they couldn't have won two rounds in the postseason.

"I know this group can be better," insisted Sutter, who added coaching in the postlockout NHL requires a special set of skills, given that it is "an Xs and Os game, a teaching game. You literally have to spend a lot of time teaching kids to become NHLers. All you're trying to make sure with your team is that everybody's well-prepared.

"It's got to be somebody who can coach our top guys. They all had average seasons."

Sutter may be feeling the heat but yesterday, he managed to transfer some of it to his key players. According to Sutter, the new coaching staff will provide the necessary structure that defenceman Robyn Regehr and others suggested was missing last year under Keenan, who was considered a progressive when he entered the NHL in 1985, and now seems to be cast as a dinosaur on his way out the door.

If the team led by Regehr, Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Dion Phaneuf is truly championship-calibre, it will be given every opportunity to demonstrate that in 2009-10.

And if it isn't - and stumbles out early again or even miss the playoffs entirely - then the house-cleaning will start in earnest.

 

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