NHL on NBCSN: Early impressions for Flames in Sutter’s return

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Flames-Oilers stream coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Entering Wednesday’s game against the Oilers, the Flames put together a perfect 3-0-0 record under new-old head coach Darryl Sutter.

The Flames didn’t win those three games under Sutter against the guppies of the top-heavy, all-Canadian North Division, either. Instead, the Flames beat these Oilers 4-3 after two wins against the puck-hogging Canadiens.

That’s a promising start, especially since Sutter is aiming high in returning to the Flames, and the NHL.

“I’m not interested in coaching 31 teams. I’m not interested in coaching just to coach,” Sutter said. “I’m coaching strictly to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s it. Nothing else.”

(If you need a side-chuckle, enjoy Sutter’s comments about his approach vs. those of “career coaches.”)

Considering how lifeless the Flames seemed during the late stages of Geoff Ward’s tenure, fans were likely happy with any change. Starting off with three consecutive wins adds a cherry on top, one that won’t become bitter even if Sutter hockey is not always the prettiest hockey.

An overview of Darryl Sutter as a coach, before and during Flames runs

Again, it’s early. Even in a compressed 56-game schedule, you can only tell so much from three games (and wins). Then again, we can apply history lessons from Sutter’s career as a coach, not to mention a glance at subtler changes for the Flames over three games.

Sutter is all about simplicity, and putting pressure on opponents.

Now, you’re only going to derive so much from players and coaches throwing out clichés like “playing the right way.” When you dig down, what does that really mean?

Cutting through the generic Mad Libs quotes, there are some comments with more substance. Take this bit about Darryl Sutter valuing sheer shot volume, via Pat Steinberg of Flames Nation:

“We’ve talked a lot about shot volume, to be quite honest,” Sutter said. “We don’t have the guys that are going to take over a game offensively like other teams in this division. More is better for us in terms of pucks at the net and pucks hitting the net as much as possible. We need more shots … I’m not worried about the percentages, I’m worried about more volume, more shots, more second and third opportunities.”

In that department, grade the Flames as so far, so good.

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After allowing slightly more shots on goal than they created before Sutter took over, the Flames have averaged six more SOG per game (30.7) than they have given up (24.7) during the last three games. Probably better yet, the Flames either tied or won “fancy stats” battles such as high-danger chances during the past three games. Not a small feat with two of those games coming against the high-volume Habs.

It really cannot be overstated: three games is a tiny sample size. That massive caveat aside: so far, so good for the Flames under Sutter.

Will the dream come true for the Flames to turn around and win a Stanley Cup with a mid-season change under Sutter, like the Kings did in 2011-12? It is way too early to say, but at least things look solid early on.

Handling Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and other key players

Once the Flames hired Darryl Sutter, the natural question was: how will he handle Johnny Gaudreau? Truly, Sutter also needs to get the most out of Matthew Tkachuk, too.

If you want a detailed look at how Sutter has handled star (and … star-adjacent*) players, Darren Haynes recently dove into 12 case-studies during Sutter’s career for The Athletic (sub. required). It is difficult to take too much away from that, other than the possibility that Sutter might clash with Gaudreau, and maybe especially Tkachuk.

Jarret Stoll might have provided the most interesting insight in that regard, via Haynes:

“He’s a lot harder on younger players than he is veteran players,’’ Stoll said. “They got to learn to play the right way. Sometimes with younger players, they need a wake-up call, sometimes they need to know how hard you can be pushed and how hard you can push your body.”

On first blush, that makes sense. After all, Tkachuk is only 23.

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But Tkachuk also plays the sort of all-around (and snarly) game that Sutter should appreciate. Maybe he should just close his eyes and picture Tkachuk as a 30-year-old?

While it is crucial to trot out the early caveat again, consider some of the time-on-ice averages before and after Sutter returned to the Flames.

Matthew Tkachuk: 19:35 per game before Sutter (26 GP); after – 15:17 (3 GP)
Johnny Gaudreau: 19:23 before (26 GP); 16:57 after (3 GP)
Sean Monahan: 18:40 before (24 GP); 16:38 after (3 GP)
Mikael Backlund: 17:14 before (25 GP); 18:23 after (3 GP)
Milan Lucic: 12:51 before (26 GP); 16:08 after (3 GP)
Chris Tanev: 21:33 before (26 GP); 24:13 after (3 GP)
Mark Giordano: 21:42 before (26 GP); 23:00 after (3 GP)

Interesting stuff.

Of course, with three games — all wins — in mind, there is noise. It is plausible to see more of Gaudreau, Tkachuk, Monahan, and others when the Flames find themselves down a goal or more.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see Sutter lean so much on his top four defensemen. As the Flames push to make the playoffs, Sutter might want to be careful about burning out 37-year-old Giordano, in particular.

And, as much as Milan Lucic deserves credit for adapting his game, it is eyebrow-raising that he is averaging almost as much ice time as Gaudreau, and more than Tkachuk.

Time will tell, but time is also running out

Maybe the key is to meld one promising Sutter instinct (playing the underrated Backlund) with a possible hang-up (not trusting Tkachuk)? Naturally, Tkachuk must earn that trust, too.

When you grade a coaching change, you often look at two things: 1) structure and 2) personnel decisions. For the most part, we likely know what the Flames are getting from Sutter from a systems perspective. Deploying the right players — including skilled ones, mistakes and all — might make the difference between an inspiring push to the playoffs and Sutter wishing he never left his farm.

* – Sorry, Jeff Friesen.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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