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CALGARY — The Flames made progress on and off the ice in a challenging season, says head coach Darryl Sutter.
"Our goal was to be a playoff team and we did that," Sutter said Wednesday at the Saddledome.
"The only way you can become a Stanley Cup champion is to make the playoffs over and over and over and over and build on that. That's a four, six-year thing. I've been through that and done it, and failed at it, both, so I know."
In their first full season under Sutter since his rehire in March 2021, the Flames (50-21-11) topped the Pacific Division and won a playoff round for just the second time since he navigated them to the Stanley Cup final back in 2004.
Calgary's core players were short on post-season success heading into the 2021-22 season.
Beating the Dallas Stars in overtime in a Game 7 to advance, and feeling the sting of a five-game exit in the second run at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, were both milestones, the coach said.
"It was a good experience for them and it's good that it hurts at the end because then they understand it better," Sutter said.
"There's guys that had played one round and won one game so they don't get that much about it. The next step is the next step."
An enforced 20-day break in December when the COVID-19 virus swept through the Flames backloaded their schedule with 31 games in 61 days in March and April.
"Definitely a factor," Sutter said. "Make sure we're a better-trained team, that's for sure.
"That was a huge step for us last summer and through the season, but in the end, as much as our team improved, we have players that have to take another step in that in order to become better players."
A finalist this year for the Jack Adams Trophy that goes to the NHL's top coach, Sutter came out of what seemed to be head-coaching retirement to return to the Flames.
After winning Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014, the 63-year-old from Viking, Alta., was an adviser to the Anaheim Ducks' coaching staff when the Flames brought him back into the fold.
Sutter took the job because he didn't like the way the Flames were playing. He thought they'd fallen behind other teams in their division. The Flames earned a measure of respect this season, he said.
"Just meeting the standards that are necessary to get some respect back as an organization, as a player back, as a team back in the league, I think that's really important," Sutter said.
"For me, 100 per cent is being able to go out and talk to the fans about it because they know and they get it. They're not caught up in anything that's gossip or not real."
General manager Brad Treliving didn't think it a coincidence that Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube all had career seasons in a full campaign under Sutter.
"He pushes people to achieve things and it's not always comfortable," Treliving said Saturday. "He's brought structure, he's brought accountability to this group and the group's embraced it.
"I think it would be a crying shame if he's not named coach of the year. He's done a marvellous job."
With eight players headed for unrestricted free agency, including Gaudreau, Sutter can't do much team planning for 2022-23 until the market opens July 13.
"The question with the last round that we played this year, or the last game that we played, the most important part is your group that has to stick together, that 23-to-27 age group is the most important part," Sutter said.
"Did those guys show progress? Because they're the guys that the team normally has under contract or has rights to."
Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate, the Stockton Heat, open their best-of-seven Western Conference final Friday against the Chicago Wolves.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press