The last days of Darryl Sutter

How does a coach go from being coach of a division winning team to unemployed? Since most fans have no connection inside of a team, firings many times seem sudden and arbitrary. Sometimes they are. But most times, if you know how to find it, there’s a history that builds up over time that — in retrospect — that clearly points to the inevitable…

I’ve been arguing with myself whether to post this or not. I’m still of mixed minds, but I think it’s got value.

I just didn’t think Sutter was the problem. So his firing came as a major surprise to me. But I was at the point where I felt something had to happen, and said so. I just didn’t think it’d be the coach.

But after talking to a lot of people (see footnote1) and trying to get to the reality of the situation, I’ve come to realize that it was time for Darryl Sutter to move on, and I think the only person who realized that was GM Dean Lombardi.

How does a coach go from being coach of a division winning team to unemployed? Since most fans have no connection inside of a team, firings many times seem sudden and arbitrary. Sometimes they are. But most times, if you know how to find it, there’s a history that builds up over time that — in retrospect — that clearly points to the inevitable.

Coaches have a shelf life. With few exceptions (Scotty Bowman being the primary one in hockey, and HE was fired more than once) coaches only last a few years before they lose their effectiveness with a team. When you hit that point as a coach, you’ve hit the expiration date on the “use by” tag. That was, ultimately, why Sutter was fired. The team was hearing, but not listening. Playing hard as individuals, but not together as a team. And Sutter couldn’t fix it.

That, essentially, was Sutter’s problem. Sutter has a distinct personality and coaching style. He’s a strict disciplinarian, sometimes abrupt, sometimes crude, sometimes bordering on abusive. This is not a criticism — it’s a fact of life in coaching and the NHL. you don’t get there without a few choice cuss words.

Sutter had a specific style in the game he coached and the way he coached. It’s an effective style, but it has limited flexibility, both strategically and personally. Sutter is — Sutter. The problem with this — and the reason most coaches have a limited shelf life — is that if you have someone saying the same things to you day after day, over time, you tend to tune it out. For some coaches, the only way to break through this is by getting louder, which works for a while, but ultimately, they hit a point where you can’t turn up the volume knob any further.

The seeds of this firing go back a number of seasons. In my discussions, it became clear that there were warning signs going back a number of years. Sutter brings many strengths to the game as coach: he’s a pretty strong tactical coach, good at line matching, and brings the legendary Sutter work ethic and discipline. He doesn’t expect anything more out of his players than he expects out of himself — but being a Sutter, he expects a lot of himself.

Not all players can handle the demands of playing for a Sutter, but those who do come out of it better men. But one spot where I think Sutter’s weaknesses are a potential problem is his dealing with young players. Sutter doesn’t seem to see teaching as a big part of his job, and in today’s NHL, that simply isn’t true. He also isn’t at his best interacting with the younger players.

If you look through the Sharks years with Sutter, you see a string of struggles by their younger players. Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, Shawn Heins, Alex Korolyuk. Youngsters with various levels of potential, who tended to show intriguing results as a rookie, and then ran into a sophomore slump. But kids have sophomore slumps — so you don’t think about it much.

But maybe we should have. As part of my looking around the firing, I ran into an interesting set of rumors that all dovetailed together. Multiple stories of youngsters expected to be adult veterans, yelled at in practices, thrown into situations they couldn’t handle with little support system from the sharks staff. Two different sources told me that the mysterious replacement of Sutter’s assistant coaches Paul Baxter and Bob Berry was forced on Sutter by Lombardi in an attempt to bring in people more able to relate with the younger players. They were replaced by Cap Raeder and Lorne Molleken, and then later, Raeder went back to the east coach where he works the college scouting circuit, and was replaced Rich Preston.

One source told me quite explicitly that the reason Patrick Marleau developed into the player he’s shown himself to be this year is because of Lorne Molleken, not Sutter. I’ve heard from friends of two players who’s attitude towards Sutter can only be described as “angry and bitter” over how they were treated as a 1st and 2nd year player. Sutter, from everything I’ve heard, wasn’t trying to destroy the kids, but the kids might not agree. What he saw as tough love and acting like a professional, the kids saw more as thrown into the pool with a cement lifesaver.

And at the same time — these same players recognize how much they learned from Sutter, and as far as I can tell, to a man, would play for him again. When Al Sims was fired in San Jose, I heard rumors of players wandering the halls under the arena singing “Ding, Dong! the Witch is Dead”. Not here. Most players were stunned and hurt that Sutter was fired, even those who also felt he didn’t handle their development well.

That’s why this firing defies easy explanation. This team hadn’t quit on Sutter (as Calgary did to Gilbert) — but it wasn’t really listening to him or playing the game he asked them to play. They didn’t always like playing for him — but they respected him and wanted to win for him. It seems weird, but more correctly, the relationship between Sutter, his coaches, and the players was a very complex one, in a business where fans love to try to simplify things.

While hints of impending doom rattle back through the years as far back as 1999, Sutter’s firing really seems to have taken tangible form last season. It became clear last summer that some kind of fight was going on inside the Sharks. I never quite figured out what was going on, but things were leaking out that some people wanted Sutter fired, other people wanted Lombardi fired, there seemed to be people who wanted everyone fired, and for a while, it wasn’t sure who might get contracts and who didn’t. Lombardi sold his house, officially to simplify life (and I still can’t decide whether to believe him or not — but I tend to think it’s true; at the same time, it also made it easier for him to walk away if he didn’t get what he wanted to stay). Lombardi eventually got a multi-year deal, Sutter a one year. The one year deal raised eyebrows, too.

I now think I have a feel for what went down. It has to be remembered the Sharks faded towards the end of last season, playing just over .500 for the last 20 games. At the time, some folks on the Sharks list felt the team was tuning Sutter out and called for his replacement. Most of us, of course, pointed out that Sutter won the division, and that any thought of firing him was lunacy.

It turns out that same fight went on inside the Sharks. In one corner, advocating replacing Sutter during the summer, is Dean Lombardi. He saw the team tuning sutter out. he saw the team coasting and sputtering. He saw a growing conflict with his coach over certain players and how they were used (or not): two that seem to be points of contention are Alexander Korolyuk and Shawn Heins, but they’re mere shadows of the fight to come.

(Shawn Heins played 17 games in 2001-2. Korolyuk played 32. Heins never saw enough playing time for me to ever decide how good a player he is, but it seemed clear Sutter didn’t think much of him; Korolyuk showed flashes of brilliance, and flashes that made you want to strangle him. In both cases, however, Dean Lombardi seemed convinced about the quality of the player to keep them — even as his coach insisted on not playing them. I could never figure out the logic of this. In reality, it seems to be a fundamental disconnect between coach and GM — Lombardi clearly felt they ought to be played. In Heins’ case, Sutter just didn’t. In Korky’s — he did, and Korolyuk couldn’t find consistency to suit Sutter or the fans. Did Korolyuk fail? Or did Sutter not create an environment he could succeed in? I know the answer I had last season and the one I have now are very different…..)

In the other corner seems to be Greg Jamison as president and speaking for the ownership group. His response seems to be the quite logical “are you crazy? he just won the division! Our fans will kill us! worse, the marketing department will!” — and if you think about it, it’s really hard to argue with that. While some fans were seeing the sputter and fade, most were seeing that division banner and playoff run. Not bringing back Sutter would have been suicide.

I get indications this fight between Lombardi and upper management got pretty, well, intense. And when it was over, Sutter got a one year deal. Effectively, double-secret probation.

Which seems to have pissed Sutter off in a major way. Among other things, he is a man with great self-confidence and pride. I think he seriously considered telling the Sharks to stuff it and keep their contract, but his ties to San Jose (his family has really settled in san Jose) and a feeling that things weren’t finished, and the reasoning that winning would be the best proof/revenge, he accepted the one year deal.

And that sets us up to this final season. The Sharks are division winners, pundits are picking them for the cup final, everything thinks life is great and a parade is just a matter of time. But in the meantime, Gary Suter retires, Stephanne Matteau moves on, Korolyuk heads off to Russia, Nabokov holds out, Stuart holds out, Nick Sundstrom screws up his visa stuff and misses camp…

And let’s not forget that along the way last season, a number of players picked up injuries, and not all of them were 100% coming into this season: Stuart (who’s still not 100%), thornton, and as far as I can tell, Nolan’s NEVER 100% any more, between his back, his groin, and his wrist. So the team that started last season on a roll and carried it through the playoffs came into this season missing some guys, with some guys hobbled, and with a feeling of “we’re division champs, and we’re off to win the cup”. No matter how hard they tried, a little bit of complacency snuck into the off season, and this team simply wasn’t ready for the start of the season.

The one player who’s loss can’t be minimized in all of this is Gary Suter. Not just for the 20 minutes a night he played, and his power play and quarterbacking. his loss forced Sutter into a position he’s not comfortable with: depending on younger players on the blueline — his senior guys were Rags and Rat now, which meant Stuart and Hannan had to pick up a lot of the slack, and Jeff Jillson was expected to be ready to contribute to the team.

That seems to be the final conflict: Jeff Jillson. Darryl Sutter believed he wasn’t ready for the NHL. Dean Lombardi was convinced he was. When Lombardi refused to listen to Sutter about Jillson, Sutter seems to have basically thrown Jillson into the deep end and let him struggle to prove a point. I’ve heard from multiple sources that Sutter was brutal to Jillson in practices. Part of this seems to have been an attempt to force Lombardi to send Jillson down to Cleveland, but I also think Jillson ended up taking some of the frustration that seemed to be going on between Sutter and Lombardi. It wasn’t long before Jillson’s confidence was shattered and his play erratic. Still, Lombardi wouldn’t send the poor kid down — to a good degree, there was a battle of the stubborns with Jillson as the pawn.

So the season opens with two sets of conflicts: the team is flat, it’s missing key guys, other guys are hurt, and it starts badly. Parallel to this, there’s the fight going on over Jillson, and that leaked out all over the players — they couldn’t miss it; hell, they couldn’t hide from it. Jillson was falling apart, and the players weren’t happy, with themselves, with their play, or what was happening.

Finally, sundstrom gets his visa, Stuart signs (but isn’t healthy), nabokov signs (but isn’t godlike). Sutter gets all his guys back, gets a few games to get everything together — and the Sharks still suck. You could see it in their play, it wasn’t coming together. they’d have a good game, then two bad ones, then a so-so one, then…. God knew what team would show up every night, but nobody else did.

I’ve heard rumors that “something” happened on that last road trip before the firing, probably in Pittsburgh, perhaps in Philly. What it is, I don’t know, but I have indications it involved Jillson. If it did happen, I don’t know what, I don’t know who was involved, but it doesn’t seem to have been the team in general (it clearly wasn’t a mutiny or any other kind of team thing) — if it happened at all. But that seems to have been the final catalyst. The Sharks finished out that road trip with a great game against the Blues, a rotten game against the Predators, and came home and stank up the joint against the coyotes. I wrote my “something has to happen” piece, and at the time I was writing that, Lombardi was calling up Jamison and saying “NOW can I fire him?” — and Jamison looked at the first 1/4 of the season and called the ownership group.

Did Lombardi set Sutter up to fire him? In all honesty, I can’t find any indication of it. Lombardi’s off-season was a typical off-season. he treated the unsigned free agents the way he always did. The injuries were out of his control, and it’s not Lombardi’s responsibility to keep the players from getting complacent (it’s partly the coach, it’s mostly the players).

If Lombardi did anything to set this up, it’s that he was convinced that Jillson was ready, and wouldn’t listen to Sutter when Sutter said he wasn’t. (note for the record: within two weeks of Ron Wilson coming on board, Jillson was quietly sent to Cleveland to recuperate and get his confidence back. To me, this is an indication of just how bad the relationship between Sutter and Lombardi had gotten: Sutter was right here, but Lombardi wasn’t listening. But if, as I think likely, Sutter had similar refrains about other kids in his preference for a veteran team, you can’t blame Lombardi for eventually tuning that refrain out, the way the players ended up tuning out Sutter, too).

To me, though, this indication that GM and Coach had hit a point where the relationship wasn’t functioning is the key indication it was time for Sutter to be replaced. If the coach and GM can’t communicate about players, you have a real problem. In this case, Jillson got stuck in the middle, and I can only hope it doesn’t screw up his development.

So my bottom line is that it was time for Sutter to be replaced — but this is about as close to a classic “no fault divorce” as you’ll ever find. I can’t find a villain anywhere in the story. Sutter did great things for the organization, and deserves every accolade he can get for that. it just — stopped working.

And if you look at other NHL teams who’s gone from doormats to champions, perhaps that’s inevitable. Bob Gainey built the Stars, but needed Ken Hitchcock to make them Cup Champions. We forget, but Scotty Bowman didn’t build the Red Wings, Jacques Demers and then Bryan Murray did, and Bowman came in to finish. In Quebec/Colorado, Dave Chambers and Pierre Page built it — and Marc Crawford finished it.

Do teams hit a point where you have to change voices to read a new level? It sure seems so to me. It’s really hard to blame Sutter for having a “use by” label on his forehead — but every coach does. His just came up a bit earlier than we expected.

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(footnote 1: In the years we’ve been season ticket holders with the Sharks and running our mail lists, we’ve gotten to know any number of people, players, staffers, relatives, fans. This year, the list has both people close to the Sutters and close to a number of players. They don’t talk about it on the list, generally, but some of them were willing to discuss some of what they were hearing and seeing. I try to not abuse these relationships (“Hey, jake! long time no talk! What’s the poop on the sutter firing?”), but sometimes you talk, and sometimes you listen, and I can’t help but try to put things together, because I want to understand. Some guys grew up wanting to be a pro athlete? Me, I figured out early on I wa at best a mediocre one, so I grew up wanting to be the GM…)