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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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.