Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Thing With Gambling Is You Have To Win

We respect Darryl Sutter. By all accounts, he is a wonderful father to all his children, and a caring husband to his wife. He is loyal to those who have helped him in the past, and despite the gruff exterior, willing to offer a helping hand to those he feels deserves it. He takes his job seriously. He is by all measurements of meaning, a 'Good Man'.

This franchise was drifting when he came in. Pre-lockout, the last time the Flames averaged over 19,000 people in the building was 1995, the year of the other NHL lockout. Our point totals from 1995-1996 to 2003-2004 (lockout to lockout) go 79, 73, 67, 72, 77, 73, 79, 75, 94. That 94 point season comes with Darryl on the bench, largely fueled by players Darryl acquired. The attendance happens to pick up because the team goes to the Stanley Cup in 2004. Post lockout, the Flames have played to a sold out house.

(Team payrolls pre lockout were small (for this team). According to this, from 1995-96 to 2003-04, the payrolls look a little something like (all numbers in millions of dollars) $16, $20.7, $21.6, $28.3, $33.3, $35.2. The jumps in payroll over the time period looked at have no correlation at all to jumps in attendance (and if you look at the paragraph above, on results either), because there wasn't any.)

A lot of the turn around is because of Darryl Sutter. As fans, the fact that he made the team we cheer for relevant again earns him high praise.

Post lockout, and after a Stanley Cup appearance, with a full building and full sponsorships, a Greenback destroying (and hence, Canadian dollar strengthening) policy being employed by the American Fed, and a fresh, stability friendly CBA in hand, the team raised salaries. They had too. The fan base had been awakened, and demanded the Cup that had been so close they could smell. We suspect being so close to the goal affected Darryl as well. The team was in 'win now' mode, and the moves made reflected that. The team could afford to sign its own stars for the first time in a long time, and did, inking Iggy, Kipper, and Reggie to long term contracts. Draft picks were traded for the supplementary help that this trio would need to compete. Money was spent on the free agent market. On paper, great teams were assembled for the expressed purpose of winning a Stanley Cup.

Self pity on us all, it didn't work. Despite having teams that would go on to win division titles, the years post lockout, from 2005-06 till 2008-09, the Flames would lose in the first round of the playoffs each year. Of those four series, only two of them were pushed to a seventh game. The 2009-10 season we didn't make the dance. The points totals from 2005-06 to 2009-10 go 103, 96, 94, 98, 90. Payroll increased year over year for all of those years. In fact, payroll has increased year over year for every year since damn near the 1994-95 lockout season for this team.

Now, having the team make the playoffs for 5 straight years isn't in itself a failure, and may be properly viewed as an accomplishment, if the expressed purpose and mandate of the club wasn't to win the Stanley Cup. The team made money, the value of the franchise soared, and the team, as we have said, was relevant again. But it wasn't winning Stanley Cups. It wasn't even getting close. So pressure built.

Darryl Sutter had, to one degree or another, assured the citizens that a championship was on its way. Every year that went (goes) by without one, Darryl lost (loses) some of his credibility. We, as fans or even as media, take a lot of things for granted. When the team is going to the playoffs on an annual basis, you take that for granted. In 2003-04 making the playoffs was good enough, and the rest was gravy. In 2008-09 making the playoffs wasn't even praise worthy anymore. And getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, which again in 2004 would have been fine (well not really we played the Canucks in the first round but you get the point) was viewed as a failure. It isn't fair, but fair is a concept developed outside of nature, so it doesn't apply to reality. Reality is this: Sutter came in talking a lot of junk. He basically claimed his predecessors were idiots, he was a genius who could lead us to the promised land, and he should be left alone to do just that. Because the owners bought in (hell, we all did), Darryl was given dictatorial powers over the hockey team. 'In Sutter We Trust' was the manifestation of this 'don't question my moves I know better' attitude from Sutter. Reality is that you can have this attitude if you win a championship. Reality is Darryl didn't deliver. Reality is the shine has diminished.

During the 2008-2009 season, when Darryl had installed his desired 'big time' coach on the bench, in the rusted Iron Mike, he made a gamble that would change this franchise. Darryl traded for the missing piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle, Olli Jokinen. The trade put the Calgary Flames dangerously close to the salary cap limit. Fate, the Hockey Gods, they hate to be tempted and teased. Darryl getting the Flames so close to the cap that they would have trouble dealing with injuries is the definition of laughing at the Hockey Gods, at Fate. And when you laugh at the them, they punch you in the face. Of course the Calgary Flames would experience injuries down the stretch that forced them to ice incomplete rosters. It's Murphy's Law, and Darryl, being a rancher, a profession filled with risk, should have known about it.

Hey, the guy had done a lot of good for the franchise. He was allowed to gamble. Although that's strike one.

The 2009-10 season, we all know, was one where Darryl kept his job by sacrificing Keenan, and brought in the next 'big time' coach who would guide the team to the promised land, his brother Brent Sutter. Darryl was also aggressive in the free agent market, signing the big fish of that year, Jay Bouwmeester. The blueline was stacked, the goalie world class, Jarome and Olli were to be a dynamic duo, Bourque would provide scoring depth, the tables were once again set for a run at the Stanley Cup. And then they actually played 82 hockey games.

As the disaster that was the 2009-10 season was unfolding, Darryl would not gamble once, but twice. He would trade Dion Phaneuf and his $6.5 million dollar cap hit was traded because Darryl wanted to move resources from the blueline to the forwards (and the other stuff, but we are not getting into it). Gamble number one of that year. When that didn't appear to work, he would then trade Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the NY Rangers for a few weeks of Chris Higgins (the proud owner of 6 points in 20 games this season), and a few years of Ales Kotalik. Needless to say, gamble number two did not work either (and in full honesty, the trade for Kotalik is when Darryl lost me, AZR, forever, so that is my bias).

With three big gambles that had come up bust in two years, Darryl was allowed to guide this franchise back into the free agent markets. Now you may not all consider resigning Tanguay and Olli Jokinen gambles, but we do, because of what it represents. Darryl was at a crossroads, and he chose to double down on the 2009-2010 season. It is fine to remain in the win now mode, but it isn't if you're plan is to go into battle with a roster that had proven it couldn't even make the playoffs the year before. We have no idea why he did this, but that is essentially what he did. He could have moved people, he could have chosen not to sign people. He could have acknowledged the way the wind was blowing (that we needed another impact forward), but he didn't. He chose to stick with Jarome Iginla as his sole impact forward (and domebeer-aholic Kent Wilson will attest that at that point Iggy wasn't even that anymore) and supplement him with scrap heap pickups (Tanguay and Olli). He had to go that route because he had wasted the cap space he created with the Dion and Olli trades by signing (or accepting the contracts of) solid but unspectacular players like Hagman and Stajan. He had to pay White, and he had the anchor contract of Kotalik. Again, instead of making trades (or buying people out) to create space so that he could then sign an impact player or trade for one, he chose to stick with what he had. That was a gamble by Darryl, and almost everyone in the hockey universe knew it was a bad one. And as expected, so far the gamble to double down on 2009-10 has us 27th place in the league, 14th place in the conference, 4th in the division.

In other words, out of the playoffs.

We started out this post talking about how Darryl is a good man. That's because we want to stress that this is not personal, and despite some of the crews biases against the man, not done out of spite. He wasn't trying to wreck the franchise. He made those gambles because he thought he would come out on top. All gamblers do. But he hasn't come up on top in quite some time now. You don't keep allowing a loser to gamble with your money if you want to have any of it left at the end of the day. Winners can gamble all day, because they win, through luck, preparation, whatever. As long as they win, it's fine. And as long as Darryl was winning, it was fine. He is a victim of his own success in many ways, as his winning regular seasons made winning regular seasons passe.

But that doesn't absolve him from responsibility. If you promise seriousness, purpose, and Stanley Cups, then you have to deliver eventually. Sutter hasn't. The man has a taste for gambling. The question is should he be allowed one more roll of the dice. Our position is he has been allowed quite enough rolls as it is. He should be thanked for the service he did this organization, and he should be removed before he trades Jarome or Kipper or the first round draft pick for three 28 year old 45 point players.

And then we need to decide in which manner are we to go out and acquire talent. But that is another post for another day.

Furthermore, I think Peter Loubardias should be fired.


  1. Hubris (also hybris; pronounced /ˈhjuːbrɪs/ due to the hypercorrection of the Greek spelling due to the incorrect transcription of /u/ for /ὕ/) means extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power.

    See: Barack Obama; Darryl (Daz) Sutter; Eric Francis; Peter Loubardias

  2. But he bought out Nigel Dawes didn't he? I guess buying out a value contract to ensure you could re-sign Olli and keep Kotalik on the payroll isn't that smart after all.

  3. The thing with gambling isn't winning necessarily, but at least making good bets.

    Now, Darryl mixed the good with the bad for years, but usually the former out-numbered the latter. Around 2009 though, he started doubling down on the bad ones (think Olli Jokinen) and he's basically been throwing good money after bad ever since.

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