April 11th, 2003

Side Step to Success?
Button Out & Sutter In
Marc Ciampa

Button Post-Mortem

The truth of the matter is Craig Button did not do a great job as General Manager in his three years in Calgary. If he had done a great job, the Flames would be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now.

Many supporters of Button point to his solid draft record as a reason why he should have been retained as GM. However, Button was only really in charge of the 2001 and 2002 drafts and while the prospects that remain from those drafts look very appealing right now, their success as future NHLers cannot be judged until several years down the road.

When the Al Coates era of the Flames is examined, one of the biggest criticisms is that he drafted poorly but at the time it looked like the team had a bumper crop of young players. The Hockey News even rated the Flames 4th overall one year in its Future Watch issue. It may not be long before names like Eric Nystrom, David Moss and Curtis McElhinney become associated with Daniel Tkaczuk, Travis Brigley and Evan Lindsay.

A quick examination of Button's player moves show two critical areas where he failed miserably. Throughout his tenure he struggled to find a solid goaltender and he had poor asset management with several of the team's younger players.

Within days of accepting the GM posting, Button traded away the previous regime's "goaltender of the future" Jean-Sebastien Giguere. While Button himself proclaimed that a cardinal mistake in player management is dealing away a defenceman under the age of 25, the same can be said for goaltenders and in the end Button paid dearly for this error. Ironically, Button is fired by the Flames a day after Giguere sets an NHL record for most saves in a playoff debut. Despite choosing to protect only one goaltender in the expansion draft, the Flames still lost a top defence prospect in Filip Kuba even though they had the ability to protect five players at that position. Shortly after the draft, Button bought out Martin St. Louis.

For someone with a supposed keen eye for young talent, Button made a lot of mistakes in his first month. Today's Calgary Flames squad is clearly lacking in three areas: Goaltending (Giguere), a solid, puck-moving top-four defenceman (Kuba) and a top-six forward who can score 25 to 30 goals (St. Louis).

Button has spent the remainder of his time as General Manager in Calgary trying to find each of those three pieces. Granted his most recent choice for goaltender, Roman Turek, is an upgrade over his choice of Mike Vernon in 2000.

Certainly Button has made a lot of good moves as well and he will land on his feet in another hockey organization sooner rather than later. Acquiring Conroy, McAmmond, Gelinas, Boughner, Drury and Yelle were all acquisitions that have helped this team get better, at least on paper. However, his handling of the Marc Savard and Val Bure situations as well as his inability to make moves to spark the team last season when it became clear a 13-2-2-2 start was quickly going into the toilet will be his legacy.

That and trading away a certain goaltender that made 62 saves last night.

At first glance, it would seem as if the Calgary Flames are taking several steps backward with their decision to dispose of Craig Button but perhaps it is in actuality a shift sideways to enable the club to move forward in the future. The next few months will go a long way in determining whether the Flames are indeed moving forward or backward.

What the Calgary Flames did this afternoon was not simply replace Craig Button with Darryl Sutter. The club essentially divided up Button's job into several key departments. Vice President of Hockey Administration Michael Holditch and Director of Hockey Administration Mike Burke will presumably handle all contract negotiations, arbitration and essentially anything financial with respect to the team. Sutter and an as yet-to-be-named Vice President of Player Personnel will handle player transactions.

The key to the entire decision lies in the appointment of the Vice President of Player Personnel. Regardless of the title on Darryl Sutter's door this is the person who will be the team's contact throughout the league, negotiating trades and deciding which free agents to take a chance on this summer -- essentially, a Bill Watters type of position. I'm of the opinion that the person in this position will not be either Lanny McDonald or Jim Peplinski but an outsider who is yet to be hired by the organization. If it was McDonald or Peplinski he would have been announced at the press conference. Whoever is hired has to be experienced in working in an NHL front office in order for this decision to work.

With each distinct role defined it may help to create more direction within the organization. When the Toronto Maple Leafs cleaned out their front office four years ago many felt that it would signal yet another extended rebuilding process but instead the Leafs took the building blocks left by the previous regime and molded it into a contending NHL team. The club went from missing the playoffs two consecutive years to the Conference Finals and have been among the league's best ever since.

Not renewing Button's contract also eliminates a rift that had existed in the front office since about the middle of last season. With everyone on the same page it will help put an end to counter-productive moves such as this past season's events that led to a one-month mid-season search for a head coach.

This move makes sense if the new front office builds from the core of this hockey club instead of tearing it apart to bring their own players in. This move makes sense if an experienced Vice President of Player Personnel is brought in and not a hockey administration rookie such as Jim Peplinski or Lanny McDonald.

There remains a lot of question marks surrounding both today's decision and the team's future in Calgary.


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