One of the ongoing developments of the Devils' offseason is the status of head coach Brent Sutter. He's "evaluating" his position. Earlier this season, it became reported that Sutter was "homesick." An example of this story line came in the Edmonton Journal back in March, suggesting that Sutter may be done with New Jersey after the 2008-09 season. Sutter himself disputed this by stating while, yes, he was homesick - it doesn't mean he's quitting. As Sutter stated, when Chere reported on this back in March:
"This year isn't any different than it was last year or the year before that or the year before that," he said. "That's all I'm saying. And yet everyone has this thing that all of a sudden Brent Sutter is leaving the New Jersey Devils. I'm not saying it's going to happen.
"When I get asked questions, I say the way I feel. But does it mean I'm going to leave? It doesn't mean that. It means I'm going to evaluate it at the end of the year and a decision will be made at that point in time."
The point of this statement has not changed. As Gulitti reported earlier this month, when the team broke up for the season, Sutter kept true to his need for "evaluation" and that there wasn't any hard date for him to make a decision. Yesterday, Gulitti learned that this was still the case (Aside: check out the comments for Gulitti's excellent recollection of 1999's playoff exit. A bit similar to what we saw this season):
"There's nothing new to report," Sutter said. "There's really nothing to say because I wanted to get home here and spend some time around here and spend some time in the office with everyone there (at the Rebels). I haven't had a chance yet to meet with everyone there either because it's near the end of the school year and kids are field trips and stuff. I'm waiting for (son) Brandon to get home (from the Carolina Hurricanes). I'm going to think this through properly and I'll make a decision here at a later point in time."
Sutter, who has one year left on his contract, said there is no timetable for him to make his decision.
"I'm just got home here," he said. "I haven't even been home a week, so it's going to be a while. I'm not talking about the end of the summer. I just need time. I can't put a timetable on it."
I sympathize with him in that he has 2 businesses, a ranch and the Red Deer Rebels, along with a family clear across the continent. Real responsiblities, both personal and otherwise. Still, it'd be greatly appreciated if Sutter just said "I'll finish my contract first" and put this whole situation out of doubt. Quite frankly, it is at least a little daft that it's not a guarantee he'll return to finish out his contract.
That said, I am not worried about Sutter bolting from the Devils. In fact, based on what has been reported and Sutter's time here (along with some reading in between the lines), I expect him to return. And not just because he has another year on his contract.
First, Sutter is actually open about this evaluation. Yes, he's repeating the same message; but he's actually engaging questions about it. If Sutter were truly thinking of leaving, then I would think the best thing for him to do would be to stay quiet to the media and simply just consult with Lou. Instead, he's stating that any rumors of him coaching elsewhere aren't true and that the playoff loss - shocking as it was - won't effect his decision.
For an example of how silence can lead to a departure, just look at Niclas Havelid. Gulitti couldn't get one word from the defenseman at the team's break-up day; after getting all kinds of quotes from nearly everyone else on the team. Gulitti still couldn't get in touch with him for over a week, and now it's discovered that he signed a contract to play for Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League. No hints or any suggestive quotes to make a scene, Havelid felt he didn't want to stay so he just got up and left for work elsewhere. Quick, to the point, and all without a word. Sutter is doing the opposite of this and if he keeps up, I really don't think he'll end up leaving outright.
Second, since Sutter himself says he does this every year, then he must have done this in 2007 when he was hired and in 2008 after his first season with the Devils. While I don't claim to know Sutter's personal life, nor do I want to, I want to point out that Sutter did, in fact, return to the Devils to coach them for the following season. While it is a bit of a stretch, I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt since he didn't drop out after last summer's evaluation.
Third, like many in sports, Sutter has a competitive side to him - he did when he was a player and he did was a coach. It's really required at this level and it likely has driven him to take up a NHL job all the way in New Jersey. He saw the line up, became familiar with the organization, and felt he could do something special with the team. Playoffs aside, you can't argue Sutter hasn't made an impact on the team.
After his first "evaluation" with a Devil, Sutter coached the Devils to an increase in 7 points in the standings: improving from 46-29-7 (9 points) to 51-27-4 (106 points), a franchise record in wins. After a season where Sutter's lines were constantly juggled between and during games, he has defined and stuck to forward lines and an offensive gameplan emphasizing puck possession along the board. The actual chemistry with players along with their taking to Sutter's system is definitely a big part of their success this season. As a result, along with a few players having incredibly years, the Devils improved their goal scoring average from 2.51 per game to a potent 2.98 per game. Yes, an actually productive season from the forwards!
Not to mention, the Devils improved on the 2007-08 season while Devils' legend Martin Brodeur suffered a torn bicep for four months. Sutter and the coaching staff didn't panic, they settled on a goaltender who got the job done (Scott Clemmensen), and the Devils remained a top team in the conference while Brodeur was out injured. Oh, and they won another Atlantic Division title in the process. Other responsibilities aside, I'd say Sutter was quite committed to the Devils this season. I don't see how you can accomplish this without being committed!
The only proverbial "white whale" for Sutter to conquer is the playoffs. And while Sutter may say "the most devastating loss he ever encountered as a player or a coach" won't affect his decision, I can't imagine a competitor like Sutter will give it up when he has at least one more season to get this team past the first round. Not after accomplishing all of this after two seasons with the team. He says the loss itself doesn't bother him, but I would imagine the two first round exists - even if only a little bit because he knows they can do better. His use of tactics in that first round are certainly to be questioned, but his acumen and how the team is built definitely give him a chance to break through. For the sake of competitiveness and the desire to succeed, I don't think he'll throw this guaranteed chance anyway. I can't imagine Sutter wants to be regarded as someone who couldn't get it done in the playoffs, so he quit.
Fourth, Lou is committed to Sutter right now. Thinking about it, this is as good of a reason as any. When Lou doesn't feel a coach or a player fits in the team's plans or could become a distraction (or already has), Lou moves quickly and slices like a hammer. Players complaining about Claude Julien near the end of the 2006-07 season? Julien fired right before the season ended. Mike
Jefferson Danton complaining about "not drinking the Kool-Aid" and refusing to report to the farm team? Suspended for a year. My point is that Lou does not have time for nonsense.
If Sutter was ultimately leaning towards leaving the Devils, then Lou would have already let him go. In all likelihood, Lou would not want to waste precious time, reading Sutter's responses to questions by the media, when he could be looking for a replacement coach right now. Yet, Sutter just told Gulitti yesterday that he's remained in contact with Lou and that Lou is fully aware of what's going on.
As I understand it, right after that shocking Game 7 loss to Carolina, Lou stated that he expects Sutter to be back. At a time where emotion and anger and frustration and so on would be expected from, well, anyone from the Devils really, Lou stood by Sutter. He wants him back. And based on what he's done, I don't blame him. At the team's break up, he sounded less firm, but I think that was a conciliatory gesture. Clearly, this is important to Sutter and as long as Lou is confident in his return, then he'll let Sutter do what he wants. Yet, if Lou truly felt Sutter wasn't going to come back or that it's not worth him coming back, then he would have told him not even bother to "evaluate" and stay in Alberta. Especially with a draft and free agency coming up very soon; Lou doesn't make time for nonsense. Basically, as of now, Lou trusts Sutter will return - so let's trust in Lou.
From what I gather from all this, Sutter's not ducking anyone like Havelid did; Sutter has done this before; Sutter has another chance to take his accomplishments to the next level in New Jersey; and Lou still has Sutter as the coach. Given all this, I really would be surprised if Brent Sutter isn't in New Jersey for the 2009-10 season.