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Darryl Sutter rides into Calgary with highest of expectations

“Buckle up.”

That was the advice from Milan Lucic as he wrapped up the players’ first media availability following the Flames’ dismissal of coach Geoff Ward.

Having already played for Darryl Sutter’s Los Angeles Kings in 2015-16, Lucic knows better than anyone just how turbulent the re-introduction of the Jolly Rancher could be next week.

It was perhaps the most appropriate of all the reactions in town to shocking news late Thursday that the man who turned the Flames franchise around in 2004 is back with a similar mission.

“For me it’s unfinished business,” said Sutter from his farm in Viking, Alta., citing the emptiness of walking out of the arena in Tampa Bay with Jarome Iginla after losing Game 7 of the 2004 final.

“I was close with (owners) Doc (Seaman), Harley (Hotchkiss) and Bud (McCaig) in Calgary, then Murray (Edwards) came and Al Libin. It’s like I have a debt to pay those guys. We’re going to win a Stanley Cup for them.”

Just like Sutter to ride in with the highest of standards, just as he did after Christmas in 2002 when he delayed his start in Calgary so the consummate cowboy could first take in the National Finals Rodeo in Vegas.

This time the delay revolves around a pandemic that will have assistant Ryan Huska manning the bench Saturday and Sunday until Sutter arrives Tuesday when he’s expected to have cleared COVID-19 protocols.

“Churning coaches over is not a recipe for success and the message to the players is the coach they’ve got now isn’t going anywhere,” said GM Brad Treliving whose fifth coach in the last five years is inked to a three-year deal.

“Ours isn’t a structure issue or a system issue, although those will be changed. Ours is a maximizing performance issue. This is not something I’m laying at the feet of Geoff and Geoff alone. I just felt this team was underperforming and inconsistent and this change was required. Not only was a change required, but we needed Darryl and what he can bring.”

What he brings is a demand for accountability that has produced a pair of Stanley Cup rings from his time in L.A., and a resume that has seen him post winning coaching records in 15 of 18 seasons. In his two-and-a-half-year stint in Calgary his tough love approach squeezed the most out of a rag-tag bunch of grinders who built an identity under Sutter as one of the toughest and hardest-hitting teams in the league to play against.

He inherits a team whose identity revolves around being the most inconsistent team in the loop.

“He has one of the sharpest minds that has stood behind a bench in this league and his ability to extract the very best out of each individual is a skill,” said Treliving, whose relationship with Sutter goes back decades.

“One of the biggest strengths is his ability to be very clear to players in terms of their roles, the expectations and standards of the organization.”

At age 62, and long ago decreeing he coached his last game, Sutter said Friday there were only two teams he’d leave his consulting role with Anaheim for – Chicago and Calgary.

The allure of finishing what he started was on par with his belief that the Flames have the core pieces to build a championship team around, starting with its netminding, a pair of pillars on the back end and depth up the middle.

In theory, what Sutter has traditionally brought is certainly a match made in heaven for what ails the underperforming and inconsistent Flames.

But can his old school approach work in today’s game, with today’s rules and today athletes?

“There’s fundamentals that never change in terms of taking care of your own end, shot quality and puck possession,” said the hard-nosed coach when asked if he can continue to evolve with the times.

“At the end of the day the biggest part of a head coach’s responsibility now is the relationships, the one-on-ones and the honesty and getting the most out of guys. That’s what drives the bus on the good teams, the relationship the coach has with players and how he can maximize what they have inside of them. Sometimes it’s a pull, sometimes it’s a push, sometimes it’s side-by-side. That part of the game hasn’t changed.”

And sometimes the lads simply tune out the tough love.

With gritty types like Lucic, Mark Giordano, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane destined to love the increased accountability Sutter will demand, inquiring minds are eager to see how the Johnny Gaudreaus and Sean Monahans fare in Sutterville.

“When I look at this group, they’re a very intriguing group because there’s a lot of really good players – they just have to adjust their style a bit to do what it takes to win,” said Sutter, who believes strongly in grouping forwards in pairs, like Ward did.

“There are five or six really good players who started their career here and have been here through all the coaches and what’s important for them to know now is I’m here with them and I’m going to stick with them and whatever works best for them is what I’m going to do. They need stability and leadership from that same coach for a long time.”
Giordano said the group spent Friday dealing with the shock of Ward’s departure with the reality they need to focus on stepping up for games against Edmonton and Ottawa on Saturday and Sunday.

“If you’re not going to listen to a guy who is a proven winner like that you shouldn’t be in the game,” said Giordano.

“We can’t just keep switching the coach. There’s been too much change in that aspect. It’s up to us players to improve as a group.”

If this tight-knit group was best described as living in a country club atmosphere, it’s now promising to be more of a rodeo.

Buckle up indeed.

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