Brent Sutter wasn’t kidding himself when he signed on as head coach of the Calgary Flames in June.
Sutter knew that any variations he would introduce to the players would not come to fruition overnight, that the group of skaters would require several weeks to learn his new defensive system as well as embrace the coach’s theories.
“When you make a change, not just on the ice but also regarding the structure inside the room with the players, it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” the Rebels owner and former head coach said from Montreal, where the Flames edged the Canadiens 1-0 on Tuesday night.
“But the guys have been pretty good through all of the changes. It’s about leadership and we do have a good group of leaders. And the neat thing here is that I know a lot of the players, either from coaching against them or coaching them in the WHL or the world juniors, or just through events that we might have attended together through the summer. So I had a bit of feel for the guys which was an advantage for myself coming in.”
Sutter was well-primed for his current position after two seasons as the New Jersey Devils bench boss.
“The two organizations are different in the way they do things, and yet both are certainly first class,” he said.
But the Devils management couldn’t convince Sutter to fulfill the third year of his contract and relented to his request that he be released from his contractual duties. A true-blue Albertan, Sutter missed his family and his Sylvan Lake area farm and often felt like he was a million miles from home while coaching the Devils.
“In a sense, I’m right at home. I’ve had opportunities to get back to the farm a few times and see a few Rebel games,” he said. “I know a lot of the people inside the organization from ownership right down, and everybody is on the same page with how we want to want to do things.”
Sutter is aptly aided by a new staff of assistants that includes Dave Lowry, Ryan McGill and goaltender mentor Jamie McLennan.
“These are young guys who were all leaders on the teams they played for,” said Sutter. “It’s a really good leadership group and that’s a big part of it, that your coaching staff consists of good leaders. As you go along (as head coach) you hand off some of the responsibility and let guys run with it, and that includes coaches and players.”
So far, so good, as the Flames possess an 11-4-1 record heading into tonight’s meeting with the Sabres in Buffalo.
“Yeah, our record is good, but I’d like to see us tighten up. I think we’re a team that’s still trying to find our way concerning that part of it,” said Sutter.
“We’re doing things differently than they’ve been done over the past couple to three years regarding the way we want to play. There’s certainly been a high level of accountability placed on the players and I think the biggest thing is we are getting our message across. There’s a lot of teaching involved because it’s a whole new system for a lot of these guys and how we want to play within that system, and everyone has been held accountable.”
Surprising to no one is the fact that captain Jarome Iginla has clearly bought into the new scheme, as evidenced by his hot play in recent games.
“Jarome has been much better lately, he’s starting to accept and adjust to what is in place,” said Sutter. “And he’s being rewarded for it. That’s the best part of it — the players can see that’s it’s actually working.
“Really the system isn’t much different than the one we used in New Jersey and we (Devils) finished in the top five in the league with 51 wins last season and finished in the top half in goals scored. It’s different than the system (the Flames) have been accustomed to playing, but overall the guys have been great, they’ve been very receptive to the changes. It’s still a work in progress but our goals against was 30th in the league at one point and now we’re sitting in that 12th spot, so we’ve certainly improved in that area.
“As head coach, I know where I’d like to see us by the end of the season and the challenge is to get to that. And for us to be able to get to that we’re going to need a really good effort from everyone.”
Sutter has kept one eye on the Rebels this fall, and is convinced that, like the Flames, his WHL team is headed in the right direction.
“I think there’s a battle there where they’re still trying to get over that hump of missing the playoffs the last two years,” said the Rebels proprietor.
“Once they find their way and get over that, they’ll take off and run with it.
“It’s just getting through that. It’s like a wall that they still have to get through or climb over, and they’re getting near the top.”
Sutter certainly has faith in the Rebels coaching staff.
“Jesse (head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Wallin) has done a real good job of overseeing the team and coaching,” said Sutter.
“My intention at the start of the season was for (the Rebels) to be a playoff team this year, and that hasn’t changed. And my confidence in the coaching staff hasn’t changed. Everyone just has to continue to push and move forward.”