Vegas GM George McPhee had a long list of desires for the Golden Knights' first coaching hire, and Gerard Gallant checked off all the boxes and more.
Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee made his coaching criteria clear long before there were even rumblings of who would be stepping behind the bench. McPhee wanted someone who had a mind for game strategy, as any GM does, but also a coach that possessed more than the ability to make on-ice magic. He wanted someone who could lead the franchise on and off the ice, command respect and a bench boss who would lead this team through what are sure to be some up-and-down seasons as the expansion franchise found its footing.
And McPhee has found that and more in Gerard Gallant.
The Golden Knights made Gallant’s hiring official on Thursday afternoon and the former Florida Panthers coach will take the reins as the franchise’s first coach. And when it comes to getting exactly what they were looking for, it would appear the Golden Knights have hit the nail on the head.
“He is an experienced head coach, has had success at multiple levels and has a great reputation amongst the players who have played for him,” McPhee said in a release. “We undertook a very detailed due diligence process over the last several months and canvassed a number of qualified head coaching candidates to ensure we found the best coach for our group. And we believe we have found that coach in Gerard.”
Gallant checks a lot of the boxes on McPhee’s list. Speaking with ESPN’s Tal Pinchevsky in July 2016, McPhee said Vegas’ coach would need to be, “smart, approachable, unflappable, confident, hard-working, organized,” as well as good with both the community and media. Those were sentiments backed on several occasions by Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, but Foley also added that any coach would need to have the respect of his players and someone the team loved to play for.
By all accounts, Gallant is beloved throughout the hockey world. Upon his firing in Florida, many were quick to say that it wouldn’t be long before Gallant landed on his feet. With his hiring by the Golden Knights, it hasn’t been. But it’s not only that. Anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention to the Panthers during Gallant’s tenure would have seen a coach who handled the media quite well. And the players in Florida seemed to love playing for him, too. When Gallant was fired by the Panthers, Florida’s Vincent Trocheck told the Sun-Sentinel that he felt the team had, “let down a great coach and friend.” What more needs to be said?
Being beloved by the players is one thing, though. Winning is another, and the two don’t always go hand-in-hand. But one wouldn’t suggest that Gallant doesn’t have what it takes to, over the course of a few seasons, turn a hodgepodge group of players pieced together through the pending expansion draft into a team that can compete for the post-season.
When Gallant came aboard the Panthers ahead of the 2014-15 campaign, Florida was two seasons removed from their last post-season appearance and had gone 44-74-14 across the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. A promising playoff berth in 2011-12 had turned into a disastrous situation with some wondering if the Panthers would be able to dig themselves out of the hole they were in. In the first season under Gallant, however, Florida was more than treading water — the Panthers finished 38-29-15 and the 91 points were, at the time, the fifth-most in franchise history. The following season, Gallant took Florida from promise to success. The Panthers posted their first 100-point season, were back in the playoffs and won the Atlantic Division’s regular season crown. Their stay in the post-season was short but many believed it was the start of something special.
We all know now how the remainder of Gallant’s tenure would shake out in Florida. The so-so start to 2016-17 resulted in a bizarre early season firing which led to one of the more infamous images of the season, as Gallant loaded his things into a taxi and left following a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. But regardless of how Gallant’s time in Florida came to an end, he was able to get the most out of the Panthers during his time in the Sunshine State.
Gallant’s time in Florida could prove invaluable, too. The one skill he may have learned while with the Panthers that can help him in his new gig with the Golden Knights is working within an organization that puts significant value in analytics. In March, McPhee made clear those within the organization are “big believers” in analytics and Florida was no different during Gallant’s time there. The Panthers adopted the idea that using advanced statistics would benefit the team, and the Golden Knights have seemingly done the same. And with his experience in Florida, Gallant should be able to understand how to utilize the data he’s provided and make the most of his lineup on a nightly basis.
And it should be noted how much Gallant improved the Panthers’ underlying numbers during his tenure. In most advanced statistical categories, Gallant’s Panthers were better than those of his predecessors from the three seasons prior. Florida’s possession rates improved under Gallant and their shot suppression was better. The Panthers improved their ability to generate and slow scoring chances for and against, which led to vast improvements offensively and defensively. In fact, Florida scored close to an additional one-third of a goal per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 under Gallant while allowing one-third of a goal fewer. The result was an increase of nearly eight percent in goals for percentage.
Of course, the biggest difference between Gallant’s current and past gig is that in Florida there was a foundation with which he could work. He won’t have quite the same bevy of young talent in Vegas, which is to say there will be no Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau or Aaron Ekblad on the Golden Knights next season. Luckily, the expansion draft is set to bring Vegas arguably the strongest expansion roster we’ve seen in NHL history. The opportunity is there for the Golden Knights to build a team that can compete for more than top odds in the draft lottery come season’s end in 2017-18.
Vegas’ decisions at the expansion draft, and how they fare at the entry draft and in free agency, will loom large on how well the team fares in its inaugural season and beyond, but a big part of any team’s successes and failures is who they install behind the bench. And given Gallant’s track record, it wouldn’t be all too surprising if the Golden Knights are heading in the right direction sooner rather than later.
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