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Dumping Sutter won't solve the Flames' problems

Calgary Flames' General Manager Darryl Sutter speaks to the media after announcing the team has traded defenceman Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Calgary Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010. Also involved in the trade are Flames' Fredrik Sjostrom, from Sweden, and prospect defenceman Keith Aulie, for Leaf's forwards Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, and defenceman Ian White. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh


The shadowy band of oilmen and entrepreneurs who own the Calgary Flames rarely come out from behind the curtain to discuss their plans and visions for the team. There is not a Eugene Melnyk among them who will cheerily exchange monthly pleasantries with radio talk-show hosts. They do things in a logical, orderly, businesslike fashion here, fully understanding the need to separate the emotion of the moment from the reality of what happens next.

Accordingly, whatever decision is made about the future of the trio of players in the crosshairs - president Ken King, general manager Darryl Sutter and team icon Jarome Iginla - it will be done only after a thorough and orderly top-to-bottom review of the organization.

In the end, the tipping point will be the need to preserve the once fanatically loyal season-ticket base that was showing signs of weakening as the Flames' 2009-10 season started to go off the rails in January, when they managed to win only once in a 12-game span.

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Sentiment in Calgary is running heavily against Sutter right now. As the architect of the team, he put in motion the plan at the start of the year to hire his brother Brent as coach and to spend millions to sign free-agent defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. It was also Sutter's decision, in midseason, to retool the team on the fly, and approach those two hockey powerhouses, the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, for reinforcements. The results were wholly predictable. The Flames went backward, and on Tuesday night, facing a must-win game to stay alive, fell 2-1 to the San Jose Sharks and were eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 2003.

It won't matter to Murray Edwards and his ownership confreres how many members of press row call for Sutter's head on a platter. Their concern will focus squarely on the thoughts of their clients, the ticket-buying public. Happily, in an era when websites, talk shows and new media are all chattering endlessly about the Flames' future, it isn't difficult to take the public temperature.

Right now, the public wants the Darryl Sutter era to end (but, paradoxically, seems okay with Brent continuing as coach). To do anything less than give brother Darryl his walking papers would mean running the risk of further eroding the softening season-ticket base, something the owners cannot afford to do.

Of course, it will be difficult to eradicate Sutter's fingerprints from the picture, even if they do turn the keys over to someone new - Jim Nill or Steve Yzerman, both of the Detroit Red Wings organization, and Dave Nonis (Toronto) would seem to be the most attractive candidates.

Sutter's team-building philosophies kept shifting over the past half-dozen seasons as he made the move to permanent GM. In that time, he loaded up on high-end blue-line talent (Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf, Bouwmeester) only to discover that the way of the new NHL is to score more goals. So he changed gears in midseason, dumped Phaneuf, dumped Olli Jokinen, and was probably the only man in town genuinely surprised when the newcomers failed to right the ship. Collectively, the quartet of forwards brought in to save the day (or at least provide secondary scoring) failed miserably. Ales Kotalik, Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan and Chris Higgins managed 11 goals collectively in a total of 86 games, not nearly enough considering the premium ice time they received.

It wasn't enough that the Flames have these guys now; they'll have them for a while yet. Stajan was awarded a new four-year contract worth a generous $14-million. Kotalik has two years left at $3-million per. No one under any circumstances will accept those deals from Calgary, so, for better or worse, they are Flames for the duration of their contracts.

Realistically, that will be an issue, even if Sutter is made to walk the plank. It is all well and good to turn the keys over to someone new in the GM's office. Who, in his right mind, would take the job without the security of a five-year contract and the unflinching support of an ownership group who must know intuitively that things will have to get worse in Calgary before they can get better?

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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