In the middle of the 2020-21 season the Calgary Flames went back in time and brought back Darryl Sutter in an effort to turn around a franchise that had sagged into mediocrity. Now that they are more than 50 games into their reunion, the early results have been eye opening.
The Flames enter play on Wednesday night on top of the NHL’s Pacific Division with a 12-3-5 record thanks in large part to a dominant combination of smothering defense and elite goaltending. The latter development is getting a lot of attention with Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar already combining for seven shutouts in 20 games this season, but the Flames’ defensive success goes well beyond them.
Most of the signs point to the Flames buying into Sutter-hockey and doing what Sutter-coached teams do best — eliminate opposing offenses.
The Flames are not only the top team in the league in terms of goals against, they are one of the league’s best teams at suppressing shot attemts, shots on goal, and scoring chances. Yes, they are getting fantastic goaltending. But they are also getting great defensive play in front of the goalies. And it is a dramatic shift in what we saw from this very same lineup prior to Sutter taking over.
Just look at the defensive numbers for the Flames in the 51 game that preceded Sutter’s arrival and the 51 games (last season and this season) that followed it. League rank during each time frame is in parenthesis.
They went from being a bottom half team across the board to one of the league’s best.
Under Sutter they have shaved off 7.5 total shot attempts per 60 minutes, five shots on goal, and dramatically slashed the expected goals against and actual goals against. It is a completely different defensive team, and keep in mind they actually lost Mark Giordano (still an outstanding defensive player) before this season and have actually improved their defensive performance.
Chris Tanev has gone through a career resurgence since joining the Flames, while Noah Hanifan, Rasmus Andersson, and Oliver Kylington have all developed into solid NHL defenders. But all of them were in place on the roster at the start of last season when they were nothing more than an average to below average defensive team.
The reality is that this is simply what Sutter-coached teams do. They are always — always — among the league’s best at limiting attempts, shots, chances, and goals. Even during the tail end of his tenure with the Los Angeles Kings when the roster had declined and gone through some overhaul, they were still the best defensive team in the league.
What is perhaps most fascinating about this Flames team is that their defensive improvement has not come at the expense of offense. Sutter’s Kings teams were shutdown teams defensively, but they did not generate much offense and even found themselves near the bottom of the league even when they were winning. The Flames, as of Wednesday, are averaging the sixth highest goals per game mark in the league, while Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk are still point-per-game players individually and Andrew Mangiapane finds himself in the middle of the goal scoring race.
There is a good chance that Markstrom and Vladar are going to see their save percentages drop at least a little bit here over the next 62 games, but even if they do the Flames’ defense has played at this level for a long enough time that it should be expected to continue. Defense doesn’t typically slump.
At the start of the season the expectation in the Pacific Division was that Vegas would probably stroll to the regular season crown with Edmonton maybe being the best of the rest in that grouping. But the Sutter impact on the Flames’ defensive play and work ethic has definitely made things a little more interesting at the top. They are now very much in that competition for the top spot.