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Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Brent Sutter auditioning to keep Flames job

By Scott Burnside

Guess we're about to find out whether Brent Sutter really can coach in the NHL or not.

After two unfulfilling seasons in New Jersey -- both of which ended with first-round departures in the playoffs -- Sutter fled back home to Western Canada, where his tenure as Calgary's head coach has been mostly an exercise in underachievement.

But was that lack of achievement a function of Sutter's coaching or the mess handed to him by brother Darryl, the recently departed GM of the Flames?

More to the point, did a significant disconnect between the brothers conspire to make a bad on-ice situation even worse?

Those questions will presumably be answered in short order as it appears new GM Jay Feaster will give Brent Sutter a chance to prove what many people believe: Sutter has the tools to be a successful big league coach. Certainly that was the expectation when Sutter left a wildly successful tenure as a major junior coach and GM (and owner) to take the Devils job back in 2007.

Like Sutter, Feaster will have the rest of this season to prove he is the man for the job of rebuilding the Flames into Cup contenders.

Given that Feaster helped rescue the Tampa Bay Lightning from mediocrity and turned them into a Stanley Cup winner back in 2004, the sense is he has a pretty long leash and will be the Calgary GM going forward, barring something unforeseen.

If that's the case, the NHL welcomes back a good person and a fine hockey mind.

Look for Feaster to closely examine not just Sutter but the makeup of the entire coaching staff. Scouting personnel on both the pro and amateur sides will also be under a microscope as Feaster comes up with a business plan to get the Flames back on track.

It won't be easy given the many missteps the team endured under Darryl Sutter's reign. Draft picks have been squandered, trades have been botched.

Regardless of what you think of Dion Phaneuf, the Flames have virtually nothing to show for dealing the rugged defenseman who is now the Toronto captain. Worse, Darryl Sutter's decision to sign Matt Stajan to a four-year, $14 million contract extension was a colossal blunder that will make Feaster's job, vis a vis the salary cap, that much more difficult.

But perhaps the biggest decision Feaster will grapple with in the coming months is the future of Brent Sutter.

In the weeks and months leading up to Darryl Sutter's dismissal this week came the realization that he cast such a long shadow over the organization. Even the merest hint of what he wanted to see in terms of lineups and the like was immediately seen to be the word of law.

Maybe it was the fault of the coaching staff for perceiving that it had to do things Darryl's way, or maybe it was Darryl's fault for allowing the perception to exist -- real or imagined.

Regardless, it was a factor in the team's poor performance, especially through the first third of this season.

Don't expect Feaster to demand the coaching staff bend to his whims.

That's not how it worked in Tampa with John Tortorella and we don't expect it to be how Feaster does business in Calgary.

Whatever the dynamic was that existed, whatever excuses were created for a lack of success, all of that is gone now. As a result, the coming weeks will be an audition of sorts for Brent Sutter.

If he can coax the Flames back into the playoff picture in the Western Conference (they were 14th in the West, eight points out of the last playoff spot as of Wednesday morning), we're guessing he will get another shot next season.

If the team continues to flounder, if he can't coax more offensive production out of Jay Bouwmeester and if he can't get continued production from the enigmatic Olli Jokinen, he will be gone.

Then? Well, if we were bettors we'd put a few coins on the probability that Bob Hartley, Feaster's longtime friend and colleague from their days in Hershey of the AHL, will get a shot at the post.