Commentary

Is Sutter spell dwindling in Calgary?

Updated: February 1, 2010, 10:09 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

There is a kind of protective bubble that has grown around hockey's first family, the Sutters.

It is a bubble constructed of hard work, sweat and more than a little blood. It is built on loyalty and family and a "my word is my bond" kind of integrity. It speaks to issues far greater than any of the wins and losses recorded on the hundreds of hockey rinks the pride of Viking, Alberta, has skated on over the past four or five decades.

The Sutters didn't necessarily ask to exist within this bubble, but the family, for the most part, has been immune to criticism from the hockey world no matter which way the puck has bounced.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Sutter
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaFlames GM Darryl Sutter initially told the Maple Leafs that he did not want to trade defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

This has been especially true of brothers Darryl and Brent, who are currently manning the helm of the sinking ship known as the Calgary Flames.

But Sunday revealed stark evidence of the bubble springing more than a few leaks, which, by the time this season ends, may spell the end of the magical Sutter spell for both GM Darryl and coach Brent.

Despite insisting emphatically to our colleague Pierre LeBrun on Jan. 8 that blue-chip defenseman Dion Phaneuf was not in play and wouldn't be traded (he said to put all those rumors "to bed") and saying, "we're not fooling around with our defense," Darryl Sutter shipped the hard-hitting Phaneuf to Toronto on Sunday. The package included forwards Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan and Jamal Mayers and defenseman Ian White. The Leafs will also receive forward Fredrik Sjostrom and defensive prospect Keith Aulie in the deal.

The fact that the Flames team Darryl built has gone completely off the rails since making those comments has a lot to do with Sunday's deal, although it does little to lessen the impression that Brent has lost control of this team.

Calgary beat up the AHL-like Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, but that was its first regulation win in 13 games and its first victory of any kind in the past 10.

The team's offense stinks: It ranked 22nd as of Sunday morning and has scored more than three goals only twice in its past 13 games. The Flames are 23rd on the power play, so the addition of Hagman and Stajan can be rationalized. Who knows? Perhaps the pair will provide some much-needed depth to the Flames' lineup as they struggle to stay in the Western Conference playoff race.

By Sunday afternoon, the Flames were tied with Detroit for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, although Calgary held an edge in wins (27-26) to sit in eighth. Tenth-place Dallas was just three points back heading into their game Sunday night.

Are the Flames a playoff team? They should be.

But if anyone who has watched the fragile Flames play at all this season thinks they have a realistic shot at knocking off San Jose, Chicago or Vancouver or almost anyone in the West playoff bracket, we'd like some of what they're having.

That the Flames should be better than they are is among the grandest understatements of the season. Miikka Kiprusoff is a world-class goaltender. Until Sunday morning, the Flames boasted a blue line that should have been the envy of the NHL with Phaneuf, Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr and the emerging Mark Giordano.

But the team has struggled up front; most notably, Olli Jokinen, Sutter's big trade-deadline acquisition last season, who has been an unmitigated disaster. Jokinen has just 11 goals and 35 points this season, far below what a top-line center making his kind of money ($5.5 million this season) should be producing. It's worth noting that Matthew Lombardi -- the roster player who went to Phoenix in the Jokinen deal -- has 10 goals and 35 points and is making $2.35 million.

Phoenix also received prospect Brandon Prust (he was reacquired by Calgary in the offseason) and a first-round draft pick from the Flames, while the Coyotes sent a third-round pick to Calgary. It all means the Flames frittered away a prospect and a first-round pick for a player eating up a big chunk of salary-cap space.

That debacle in large part begat Sunday's deal, which has all the makings of being another long-term disaster given Phaneuf's upside, even if he has had a letdown since being nominated for a Norris Trophy two seasons ago and posting a monster rookie campaign in 2005-06.

Sure, the Flames had depth on the blue line and were dealing from a position of relative strength ("had" being the operative word when it comes to their blue-line power).

Maybe with Phaneuf gone, Jay "The Silent One" Bouwmeester will wake up from his season-long coma and start producing offensively. He could hardly be less productive; he has two goals in his first 55 games in Calgary after scoring 42 over the past three seasons in Florida. And sure, maybe Stajan will turn out to be the solid second-line pivot he never quite managed to be in Toronto. And maybe Hagman won't dry up offensively as he has regularly done in the past.

But those are a lot of "maybes" when you've dealt a player who has already shown himself to be an elite defenseman.

In short, this is a deal that smells ominously of panic.

Perhaps none of this might have come to pass had coach Brent Sutter been able to get more out of this talented Flames team. It was Brent, of course, who famously fled New Jersey this past offseason after failing to get a good Devils team out of the first round in two straight postseasons, claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family in Red Deer, Alberta.

Well, if you bought that line, you'd need to borrow a pair of old rubber boots from one of the Sutter farms. It came as no surprise to anyone that Brent moved swiftly to assume the head-coaching job that was made available when Darryl canned veteran bench boss Mike Keenan.

That little bit of synergy has now turned to a big bowl of muck.

There are persistent rumors about Brent's inability to get along with his top players -- including, not surprisingly, Phaneuf -- and the losses have continued to pile up.

One of two things will happen in the aftermath of this trade: Calgary will get back on track and not just make the playoffs, but also win at least one round for the first time since its surprising run to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals (highly unlikely); or it will muddle along, miss the playoffs or sneak in and get waxed in the first round as it has the past four springs (much more likely).

Only the former will keep Darryl and Brent in that comfy bubble.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE