courtesy Jim Matheson, Postmedia News
EDMONTON — Brent Sutter is not so much interested in the NHL lockout as his junior Red Deer Rebels’ breakout these days; a National Hockey League coach no more, but a Western Hockey League general manager once again.
Sutter, who was an absentee owner of the Rebels while he coached the New Jersey Devils for two years and then the Calgary Flames for three seasons, is back doing what he loves. He is running his junior team hands-on every day, trying to reverse a trend that has seen the 2001 Memorial Cup champions miss the playoffs three of the last five years.
He’s not the coach — Jesse Wallin, who coached Canada’s under-18 junior team last spring, is again behind the bench — but Sutter has taken the GM duties from Wallin. He feels it’s too much for one guy, although Sutter did both jobs for seven years. Sutter drew up a list of GM candidates but eventually picked himself, so he’s now looking at blue-liner Riley Boomgaarden, a 2013 NHL draft possibility, and not Jay Bouwmeester on the Flames’ defence; and Frank Musil’s second son, Adam, at forward, not Jarome Iginla ripping shots in Calgary.
When Sutter left the Flames last spring, his name immediately popped up as an Edmonton Oilers coaching possibility. When Oilers president Kevin Lowe named him bench boss of Canada’s world championship team, it seemed natural that he’d find his way here.
But the Oilers kept it in-house, promoting Tom Renney’s right-hand man, Ralph Krueger, an NHL rookie head coach but an outstanding head man for years in Europe.
“Ralph’s a great coach. Hiring somebody from within is the right move,” said Sutter. “He knows the players. He’s a young, ambitious guy as far as being a coach in the NHL. He’s going to do a very good job there. They’ve got some terrific young players, and I like the way they play: uptempo. It’s about speed and attack and also playing without the puck. It’s an exciting team.”
Sutter, who didn’t decide to take the Rebels’ GM job until just before training camp opened, hasn’t totally turned his back on the NHL.
“I don’t know what my future holds,” he said. “The first two years in New Jersey were great … Mr. (GM Lou) Lamoriello is top-notch, and I have so much respect for him, and the players were fantastic, but I made a decision to come back (to Alberta) for family reasons.
“It was disappointing to hear I had left New Jersey to go to Calgary. That was so falsely reported. I wasn’t looking to get back to the NHL at all, but six days after I left, I got a call from (then-Calgary GM and his brother) Darryl. I was quite surprised by it. Everybody thought Darryl was going to coach the Flames.
“It was a good experience there,” Sutter added. “But the years were tough because we missed the playoffs every year. No hard feelings. You move on.”
There are other WHL teams where one guy does both jobs — ex-Oiler Mark Lamb in Swift Current, Lorne Molleken in Saskatoon, Mike Johnston in Portland — but Sutter wanted Wallin to concentrate on coaching.
“It’s a lot for one guy, lots of work in the winter where you have to get out and see players on other teams, lots (of planning) in the summer, too, and Jesse has a young family,” said Sutter, who had put the coaches and scouting staff in place before he went to the NHL.
“I had a list of people I’d put together for the general manager’s position, and I was on the list, too. I met with players past and present, talked to Jesse … it became clear that, at this point in time, if I was going to be in Red Deer, I needed to do the general manager’s job.”
The Rebels had a whack of injuries last season, but it was the loss of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the Oilers that left the biggest hole. Before that, Sutter’s son, Brandon, left early to play for the Carolina Hurricanes. He was traded this past June to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Jordan Staal deal.
“Hoppy was the first player in a many, many years to leave the Western Hockey League at 18. We also lost Brandon as a 19-year-old, two guys gone in the last four years,” said Sutter. “In junior hockey, you only have kids for four years, and when you lose Ryan after just two years and Brandon after three … we put too much stock in a player like Ryan, feeling he’d be with us longer.
“I’d made it very clear to everybody when we took him (in the WHL bantam draft) that we had to make plans for his being with us for two years only and build our team accordingly. We took a step back there. Carolina felt Brandon should turn pro at 19.
“But that’s the nature of the beast. Major junior is a development league. We did our job.”