At heart, I have a great respect for the General Manager position in any sport. The complexity of the decisions they make, the overwhelming amount of information they have to assimilate and the loneliness at the top make it an extremely demanding, yet influential position.
In fact, the General Manager is the single most important employee that any sports franchise hires. Obviously no team will succeed without a star player, fan-favorite player, a good coach or a solid scouting department. That said, the GM is the one who selects the players, hires the coach and transfers scouting knowledge into a talented team.
Teams with good GMs are successful for years and teams with poor GMs suffer in the league basement for decades, even after they’ve been replaced.
While most of us focus on evaluating our favorite team’s season or playoff run, a GM’s tenure must be evaluated over a period of many years, to fully appreciate both their ability to achieve success, but also to sustain it.
GM’s, like all of us, are susceptible to bad luck or events that are out of our control, but they’re ultimately responsible for the success of the club they direct.
To be a successful General Manager in the sports world, there are a variety of characteristics and skills to possess and wield correctly.
Given the extreme disappointment in Calgary this year and the calls for Darryl Sutter’s tenure as GM to end, I thought it was past time I came up with a method to evaluate GMs that reflected my belief in their multi-faceted job.
Below I’ve evaluated Darryl Sutter on each characteristic, based on this season and his entire tenure as GM:
It’s plain and simple. GM’s are paid to build winning teams. The easiest way to evaluate success is the win and loss record.
Just remember that how fans determine success and how owners determine success are very different. Fans want to win. Owners do too, but they also want to make money. As an owner wanting to make money, I’d rather make it into the 2nd round of the playoffs for 5 straight years than win one Stanley Cup and miss the playoffs the next 4 seasons.
A GM has to balance both. If the fans aren’t happy, the seats aren’t full and jerseys don’t sell. My belief is similar to that of the Philadelphia Eagles, or the Billy Beane Moneyball A’s. Make the playoffs every year, and try to get hot at the right time. This way, the extra revenue from playoff games helps the owners and fans are happy to be in the playoffs, unless they’re Eagles fans of course.
The Flames are 40-31-10 with one game left in the season and sitting on 90 points. They are definitely out of playoffs, which is obviously where the majority of the fan’s concern comes from.
On the surface, a 40-31-10 record isn’t terrible, and would be good for 6th place in the Eastern Conference. Obviously there is some poor luck in playing for the more dominant conference.
Since Sutter took over in 2003, the Flames have a 260-178-54 record including this season. They have captured 59.4% of possible points during his spell as GM. That would be good for 12th place in the NHL if this year were used as a yardstick.
The Flames have made the playoffs in every year of Sutter’s regime, except this year. Unfortunately, other than the run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 03/04, they’ve exited after the first round each season.
Overall, the Flames have been decent, yet unspectacular over the course of Sutter’s stay. However, what fans on the Red Mile are too eager to forget is that Calgary missed the playoffs for 7 straight years before Sutter took over and his 03/04 team rekindled the passion for the Flames in the city.
While it’s obvious that teams need talent to win, it’s not that simple. Having better talent than other teams means spotting players before others do, developing them in a way that let’s their talent shine through and making sure you can afford the talent you’ve got.
In most sports, talent acquisition comes in the form of the draft (more below), trades and free agency. In soccer, they just flat-out buy players for a fee.
The best GMs realize that talent is king. Systems, coaching, cap management and everything else matter to winning, but without talent they can only take you so far.
I believe Talent Acquisition can be broken up into three categories: The Draft, Sense of Value and Chemistry & Complementary Talent.
In North American sports, the draft can be a bad team’s salvation and a good team’s ticket to stay at the top. The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins used top draft picks to climb from the cellar to the NHL’s elite. The Detroit Red Wings, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have used astute drafting to continually replenish talented rosters.
Contrary to the casual fan’s belief, the draft isn’t just the place to find the next generation of superstar, but it’s also an extremely cost-effective way of providing above-average players for very reasonable prices. Finding a 4th defenseman in the 6th round or drafting a starting tight end in the 7th can save a team millions in cap space.
The most successful GM’s not only find the superstars but also fill out their roster with recent draft picks.
While it’s difficult to judge Sutter’s draft history based on one season, I do believe it’s telling that only four of his draft picks are currently getting ice time on the Flames, and even then it’s quite sparingly. Mikael Backlund and Adam Pardy have both played for the top club this year, but have hardly been influential. Dustin Boyd and Brandon Prust garnered decent minutes but were traded before the deadline.
Sutter has made a total of 53 picks in the NHL Draft for the Flames since he took over in 2003.
Of those 53 picks, only five have logged minutes for the big club. They are Dion Phaneuf (1st 2003), Adam Pardy (6th 2004), Dustin Boyd (3rd 2004), Brandon Prust (2nd 2004), and Mikael Backland (1st 2007).
According to Hockey’s Future, the Flames have two players in the Top 50 NHL prospects; Backlund (#11) and Greg Nemiscz (#42). This isn’t a bad haul, but hardly impressive either.
In HF’s NHL Organizational rankings, the Flames are #25, even trailing their archrival Oilers who sit at #21. The following quote is probably most telling about Sutter’s ability to build for the future.
"Weaknesses: Outside of Backlund, and perhaps Mitch Wahl, Calgary's forward group could be considered blue-collar, hard-working players, but there is a definite lack of true offensive talent. Goalie Matt Keetley struggled in the AHL last year and will need a much better campaign in Abbotsford. Top five prospects: 1. Mikael Backlund, C, 2. Greg Nemisz, RW, 3. Keith Aulie, D, 4. Leland Irving, G, 5. Tim Erixon. D."
It is definitely alarming that Sutter has been unable to make good on many of his draft picks. Fortunately he has made some low-cost signings to offset a poor draft record. More on that below.
Sense of Value
This is a personal favorite of mine. Some GMs just have a way of seeing inequities in the market and exploiting them. It’s probably why Moneyball is one of my favorite books of all time, because Michael Lewis did such a great job of explaining the inequities that the Oakland A’s had discovered.
Another great example of value would be the Detroit Red Wings’ ability to find very good Russian, Swedish and other overseas players while picking them up late in the draft.
Bill Polian of the Colts also frequently finds starting offensive linemen in the late rounds of the draft.
Those undervalued players or picks change over time as other GMs catch on and adjust the way they scout or value trades. The best GMs stay ahead of that curve and shift their strategies accordingly.
Sutter’s sense of value has been in serious question this year, mainly because he’s made some bold deals that haven’t worked out. That said, they haven’t worked out because of a skewed sense of value.
The deals have been dissected on every angle already, so I’ll just give a brief summary here.
Phaneuf, Sjostrom, Aulie to the Leafs for Stajan, White, Hagman and Mayers – Shed a perennially underachieving player in Phaneuf for forward depth in Stajan and Hagman along with a very under-rated defenseman in Ian White. In my mind, this was a good deal. Sutter traded a major asset, but got three solid pieces in return.
Jokinen & Prust to the Rangers for Higgins & Kotalik – Traded a talented but underperforming center for two utterly terrible players. This could be the trade that killed the Flames. While Jokinen wasn’t exactly living up to his immense talent, he still showed flashes and at worst was off the books at the end of the year.
Higgins (-1.07 Comp +/-) and Kotalik (-1.13) have been terrible for the Flames and Kotalik is still on the payroll through 2012 season with a $3M cap hit according to CapGeek.com.
Aaron Johnson & 3rd Round Pick for Steve Staios – This could be another cap-killing trade for the Flames. Staios is 36, on the cap for $2.7M for another season and has played miserably (-1.78). For the life of me, I think someone on the Oilers has blackmail pictures of Sutter or there’s no other explanation for this trade.
Signing Nigel Dawes, however, was a mild stroke of genius for Sutter. The 25 year old is only on the books for $850k but has contributed 32 points and has been a positive offensive influence with a Corsi rating of 6.7. This is the type signing that Sutter needs more of.
Sutter has unearthed some very good players such as Rene Bourque and Mikka Kiprusoff in deals that seem like he has fleeced other GMs.
Daymond Langkow has been a very solid acquisition for the Flames since his acquisition in 2005.
The signing of Curtis Glencross a few years ago was another excellent value.
Signing Todd Bertuzzi to a one-year deal was a great way to add some temporary offensive presence.
His acquisition of Mike Cammalleri looked like a stroke of genius until he let him walk this offseason.
Right before the 03/04 cup run he managed to pick up useful pieces of the puzzle like Marcus Nilson and Ville Niemenen.
Overall, I’d say that Sutter has significantly upgraded the talent in Calgary since he arrived, but two awful trades this year have definitely tarnished his reputation. It’s not just the value of the two trades but the huge cap hits that will be felt by the Kotalik and Staios contracts when Jokinen could have been off the books this summer if Sutter wasn’t happy with his value.
Sense of the Moment
This trait is underrated and very hard to judge until well after the fact.
GMs need to understand when it’s time to blow up an underachieving team, when it’s time to shed some dead weight, when to add the last piece of the puzzle and how to exit an aging veteran gracefully and still get something in return.
Sense of the Moment is the ability to not only make the right move, but to pick the right time to do it, so that the effects are maximized.
Sense of the Moment can help achieve good value, but sometimes they’re not related. For example, many GMs will realize when a change is needed, but make a poorly valued trade so it backfires. Their Sense of the Moment was good, but their Sense of Value was poor.
The 09/10 season for Calgary has been the biggest test for Sutter’s SoM. After acquiring Bouwmeester in an acquisition that thrilled most Flames fans, signing a very successful coach in his brother Brent Sutter and starting the season off 25-12-5, it looked like Darryl was the prime candidate for GM of the Year.
Since that time, it’s all gone downhill. With the Flames struggling as the Olympic break approached, he obviously felt it was time to shake up the team. The Phaneuf deal was actually a very well thought out plan. Ditch a locker room cancer and acquire some depth and by all accounts, team guys.
Where Sutter erred was continuing the purge. He went overboard and frankly got desperate in the Jokinen and Staios deals.
Sense of the Moment has probably been the hallmark of Sutter’s tenure as GM. He knew when to remove Playfair as coach and also realized that Keenan wasn’t the answer. Sure, he hired them in the first place, but wasn’t afraid to admit it wasn’t working and made a change.
The deadline deal for Jokinen last year was a great attempt to add an extra chess piece before the playoffs and his sneaky trade for the rights to Bouwmeester before he became a free agent was one of my favorite GM moments in the last decade.
I also think the Phaneuf deal was a move that many GMs wouldn’t have the cojones to make, despite it being the right move.
Chemistry and Complementary Talent
GMs are like chefs. A chef’s goal is to produce a wonderful meal. A chef can shop for the best ingredients and cook the meal exactly to their recipe, but no one wants to eat hickory-smoked Jell-O topped with jalapeno brussel sprouts and coffee-marinated squirrel cheeks. What I’m trying to say is that the recipe has to be a good one, the flavors need to complement each other.
GMs who believe that talent and a system are the ONLY things needed for a team are missing the true art.
Talents need to be complementary.
Brett Hull once commented on how he could score 50 goals with any center in the league, but the years that he scored 72 goals and 86 goals were to the credit of Adam Oates.
Players need to have a common bond, chemistry or bromance – I don’t care what you call it.
Terrell Owens is the poster child for poor chemistry. Statistically, he’s one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game, but struggled to get along with three different Pro Bowl quarterbacks despite racking up his own Pro Bowl results and making the playoffs with those same teams.
Poor GMs either don’t recognize it or underestimate the effects, but there are too many contracts handed out to the Owens’ of the world and not enough searching for the next Adam Oates.
Say what you want about the value of the deals and signings Sutter has made but he has undoubtedly tried to have a harmonious locker room.
Unfortunately, he’s been lost when it comes to complementary talent. Sutter’s love of gritty , defensive forwards has led him astray by leaving the Flames devoid of any elite offensive talent other than Iginla. This was probably the biggest impact on Flames of the Jokinen trade. All cap impacts aside, Jokinen was at least an elite talent, whereas Higgins and Kotalik are marginal players at this point.
One of Sutter’s biggest failures has been the inability to find Iginla a playmaking center. Jerome is at his best when in shooting positions. He would thrive with a player who was able to find him with the puck in those positions. When Darryl picked up Jokinen, he acquired a great talent, but an incredibly poor fit with Iginla. Jokinen is a shooter and so is Jerome, they needed to be on different lines.
Other moves such as re-acquiring Craig Conroy and the pickup of Matt Stajan have been decent attempts to find a partner for the Flames captain but none have been elite playmakers.
Sutter has consistently found quality defensemen, and excellent second tier scorers along with a phenomenal starting goaltender, he has only missed out in one major area.
Since none of my columns would be complete without a table of some sort, here are my final grades for Sutter.
The 09/10 season has been a miserable one for the Flames and for Sutter. It started off with a lot of promise and has finished with as much disappointment as I can remember for any Flames team in my lifetime.
Looking at Sutter’s tenure overall, however, gives a different picture. He has taken the Flames from bottom-feeders to relevance. While he’s had some questionable moves, he’s also made some brilliant ones.
Sutter deserves the chance to turn things around next season, but the leash may be short given the implosion this year.