April 11th, 2003

Man of Two Hats
Darryl Sutter Takes Button's Place Upstairs
Rick Charlton

In the end, a very plain statistic may have finally pooched him.

Craig Button was in his third year as General Manager of the Calgary Flames, his team mired in 12th place in the 15 team Western Conference, lining up unfavourably with the 11th place finishes of his first and second years.

Over three years, there was no improvement on the bottom line where it mattered. No progression. Only regression.

Button paid the price this afternoon, finding out his contract extension would not be picked up, the team assigning his role to coach Darryl Sutter for the duration.

The guy who might have saved Button, Sutter himself, spun straw into gold with a 19-18-8-1 performance through the second half of the season, seeming to vindicate the lineup the GM had put together. All the airy talk coming out of ownership and President Ken King in recent months seemed to agree with that.

But maybe it just showed ownership that Sutter didn't need Button.

It was also nice of the Flames to essentially double what they would normally pay a coach to attract Sutter to the fold but who among us suspected they'd eventually recall their largesse by eliminating the salary of Button. Sneaky that.

The move to allow Button to walk off into the sunset comes after many media analysts had concluded Calgary's strong finish had probably saved him, arguing he should probably stay through to the end of 2004 when the league is likely to shut down while negotiations progress towards a new CBA that could dramatically alter the economics of the league.

There were also testimonials in recent days from captain Craig Conroy and assistant captain Bob Boughner, both insisting the GM puzzle be solved quickly, with Button staying on. But then, what else would we expect them to say?

The critics will be all over this, claiming a team seven years removed from its last playoff appearance may be doomed to another cycle of rebuilding under yet another GM. They might have a point.

Button's list of faux pas, depending on your point of view, included some perceived rough treatment of veterans Dave Lowry and Mike Vernon, failure to clean-up in a timely fashion lingering dressing room distractions in Val Bure and Marc Savard and some sizeable contracts that failed to produce results commensurate with compensation, Roman Turek, Vernon and Rob Niedermayer being the most obvious.

And there were three coaches in three years, never a good legacy for a GM.

The sight of McDonald in 2001-2002 dragging Button by the ear to Connecticut to unravel the Vernon demotion to the AHL, with Flames President Ken King showing up in Florida the next night to angrily tell a radio audience veterans should expect better treatment, was the first obvious split between Button and the higher-ups.

Button's failure to address the Savard/Greg Gilbert rift, after two trade requests by Savard, left a black cloud over the team out of the gate early this season.

What might have really doomed Button this last campaign, however, was the injury-riddled start of Jarome Iginla, only six goals through the first 30 games for an offensively challenged team, many wins left on the table for lack of a single goal, this for a squad that would eventually set a club record for offensive futility.

But a team in 12th spot has a lot of problems, not a few, and that fact can also be used to condemn the architect of the lineup. Button's Flames were out of it by the time the calendar turned to December.

That Button had a vision for this team, strong down the middle, built around speed and aggressiveness, anchored by strong goaltending, shouldn't be doubted. The execution of that ideal, or lack thereof, proved his undoing.

If you believe the scuttlebutt, Button wanted to retain a veteran coach upon his arrival, the recently dismissed Brian Sutter, but budget constraints forced him to hire two rookies, Don Hay and Gilbert instead. When ownership finally came up with some big dough to land the current coach, with the results in the second half of the year vindicating the choice, Button seemed to have a chance at renewal in spite of the overall finish near the bottom of the standings.

Sutter becomes the fourth GM/Coach combination in the NHL, joining Pat Quinn in Toronto, Doug MacLean in Columbus and Glen Sather in New York, the latter two probably temporary and the former likely dependent on what happens in the playoffs.

By September, Sutter might be one of a kind.

When he accepted the Flames coaching position in December, Sutter made it quite clear a major sticking point for him was some certainty as to whom he would be working with. He indicated publicly at the time that Ken King had given him the assurances he was looking for.

That could have meant only one of three options - 1) Button continued on, 2) Lanny McDonald was advanced and 3) Sutter himself would be named GM if Button was let go.

As it turns out, a combination of the last two may have been agreed upon as early as mid-December.

Sutter's teams in San Jose focussed on defence first hockey, taking care of its own zone, grinding out wins through a combination of talent and hard work.

How Sutter will transform that vision to the Calgary Flames will be interesting.

It figures he is exceedingly unhappy with the .903 save percentage of Roman Turek, the second lowest among 21 goaltenders starting 50 or more games last season. Sutter stated in a radio interview late in the season that .920 is the minimum he needs from that position, a difference of about 20 goals against based on Turek's statistics from last year.

With Sutter as GM it figures the Flames are also going to get bigger through the summer, game but smallish smurfs like Scott Nichol, Blake Sloan and perhaps Steve Begin probably falling by the wayside.

Sutter loves Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle. He may not love Conroy (look for a change at Captain) as much but he certainly must have adored the dominating performance of Iginla in the final months of the season.

Sutter wants to vastly improve the ability of his defence to jump into the play and create offence. He has repeatedly made reference to the youngish defence core, saying the group is still learning to make plays under pressure, implying he may have more patience in that area than many might have expected. He loved the way Andrew Ference, as one example, was rounding into form on the power play late in the season.

The status of Calgary's scouting staff may also be up in the air although the group has generally received very good reviews for its work in recent years. Sutter may simply recognize this is not his area of expertise and leave it in the hands of the current group. He wouldn't be the first GM to simply nod his head at the draft table after delegating responsibility to his scouting staff.

For Flames fans, the revolving door at the top has become almost a fait accompli as this franchise flounders through 14 years without a single playoff series win. The fans have been turning out in droves in spite of everything that has happened to this team, signalling the faithful have finally crossed the barrier that separates Cubs fans from the rest of humanity, a city so used to losing it is starting to wear it as a badge of honour.

Can Sutter finally rescue them from their private hell?

The reality is that Sutter is just another in a long line of rookie GM's, in spite of his experience in other aspects of the game.

Its gamble time again.

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