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Top Shelf: Bearing the Brent of responsibility

The Calgary Flames were fifth in the West with 98 points last season, but were ousted in the first round for the fourth straight year. (Getty Images)

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The Calgary Flames were fifth in the West with 98 points last season, but were ousted in the first round for the fourth straight year. (Getty Images)

Being around his family back in his home province will presumably have a calming influence on Brent Sutter. That’s great for Brent Sutter the man, but the real trick for Brent Sutter the coach will be extending those soothing vibes to what has been one of the NHL’s most volatile entities in recent seasons.

Sutter has been hired to see what he can do about the mediocre state of the Calgary Flames. That, of course, is the same organization for which his brother Darryl is the GM, his other brother Duane is director of player personnel and his other brother Ron is a scout.

And if Brent, a bona fide Alberta rancher, needs a farmhand, he can call upon nephew Brett – Darryl’s son – who played four games with the Flames this year after a call-up from the American League.

All that family stuff is really just a backdrop to the real question about extracting the most out of a Flames team that has consistently disappointed since coming within one game of claiming the Stanley Cup back in 2004.

Calgary, a squad that has all the major pillars for big-time success in place, has flamed out in four straight first round matchups. This topic is particularly tender in Cowtown because, after winning the Cup in 1989, the Flames failed to win a playoff series again until their big run in ’04.

Sutter will be the fourth coach to guide the team post-lockout, following brother Darryl, Jim Playfair and Mike Keenan, who was fired last month.

The only truly curious aspect to this hiring was why it didn’t happen two years ago. Darryl Sutter tabbed Keenan as bench boss on June 14 of 2007. Almost one month later to the day, the New Jersey Devils gave Brent Sutter his first NHL coaching gig.

Maybe Sutter, a highly accomplished junior coach both at home and abroad, wanted to get his feet wet at the pro level away from the glare coaching in a Canadian city attracts.

Then again, not much seems to rattle this guy.

Whatever the reason, Sutter spent the past two years guiding New Jersey to great regular seasons and first round showings that mirrored Calgary’s early exits.

He left New Jersey with one year left on his contract, citing a desire to be closer to his family, his ranch and the Western League team (Red Deer) he owns and used to coach.

Because he became coach of the Flames so quickly after leaving Jersey – a desire that presumably wasn’t on his list of reasons for resignation – Devils chairman and managing partner Jeff Vanderbeek feels a bit like he’s been Sutter-punched.

Truth is, Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello was right to grant Sutter permission to speak with his brother about the Flames opportunity. A person as proud and competent as ‘Sweet Lou’ wouldn’t want somebody coaching his team who didn’t completely want to be there, so why begrudge him the opportunity to ply his craft elsewhere? By being the bigger man about this, Lamoriello has further entrenched the golden reputation his organization carries in NHL circles and that will only increase the quality of candidates applying to be the next Devils bench boss.

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As for the task of extracting the most out of the befuddling Flames, Sutter is faced with a couple key issues: The first is restoring Calgary’s ability to defend its own territory. The team ranked 24th league-wide in 5-on-5 goals-against this season, something defensive stalwart Robyn Regehr said was at least partially attributable to the antiquated tactics being employed by Keenan.

Under Sutter, the Devils gave up the second-fewest 5-on-5 goals in the NHL this year and that was with all-world goalie Martin Brodeur on the sidelines for most of the season.

Then again, Jersey playing tight ‘D’ under any coach doesn’t really resonate as a shocking development.

Calgary and New Jersey are similar in that they’re both teams dominated by talk of reducing the workload of the No. 1 goalie.

It has been suggested Miikka Kiprusoff’s billable hours will be cut under Sutter, but will that really be the case?

Brodeur had an injury-forced absence this year, but the season prior he played 77 games for Sutter, the second-highest total of his Hall of Fame career.

If there’s one instinct all Sutters are known to posses it’s the intense desire to win – all the time. Darryl better find Brent a suitable backup if Kipper is to get some rest, something that’s easier said than done when you’re up against the salary cap like Calgary is.

Regardless of how that situation plays out, Calgary has the on-ice personnel to be a competitive team, as has been the case for a number of seasons now. But the new coach must find a way to coax his charges into more consistently executing an altered game plan, otherwise Brent Sutter and the organization he now works for will continue to run into a first round roadblock.

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Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.


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