OTTAWA – This is no longer just Mark Stone’s first game back in Ottawa.
It’s also his first game under new Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer.
The Golden Knights, that zany, upstart, social-media friendly enterprise from the desert, showed they are as serious about results as any Original Six NHL team when they fired head coach Gerard Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly Wednesday after a pretty impressive two and a half years.
Were the Knights too good too soon? After stunning the hockey world by reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2017-18, the Golden Knights exited the 2019 playoffs in a first-round loss to DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks, and have had a so-so first-half, currently sitting just outside of a wild-card spot.
Gallant was named the NHL’s Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year for 2017-18, perhaps his first sign of trouble. It’s a perch from which many coaches tumble.
Vegas had a 43-32-7 record last season. Now 24-19-6, the Golden Knights arrive in Ottawa on a four-game losing streak, including Tuesday’s 4-2 loss in Buffalo to the Sabres.
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon says the four-game skid was not the reason for the move.
"It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game," McCrimmon told reporters in Ottawa prior to the Golden Knights’ afternoon practice. "It’s hard to put into words, I guess, unless you’ve done these jobs, but it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed.
"I wish I could be more specific," McCrimmon added. "We thought about this a lot. It wasn’t something we did in haste."
Those who cover the team say the Golden Knights have been wildly inconsistent all season. And yet, once the decision was made, the move to sign DeBoer happened within a 24-hour period, McCrimmon said. DeBoer was expected to arrive in Ottawa Wednesday night or Thursday morning to prepare for that night’s game against the Senators.
McCrimmon wouldn’t get into the hypothetical question of whether he would have made the move had DeBoer not been fired by San Jose last month.
The Vegas GM says he has admired DeBoer’s work in the Pacific Division and believes he relates well to players.
"His teams are always really well prepared, well coached," McCrimmon said. "We feel he will do a really good job for us. He’s a really respected coach in the industry … he’s an intelligent guy. His teams have been strong on special teams and he’s been to the Cup finals with two different teams (San Jose and New Jersey). He’s had a lot of success."
If the fired coaches were surprised at being let go, so were Vegas players.
"It’s a tough day," said Stone, who joined Vegas from Ottawa at last year’s trade deadline. "I have a ton of respect for Turk and Kells. We took a lot of pride in our dressing room and players know we as a group haven’t played to expectations.
"As players, when you don’t play up to standard changes happen. We have to play better. We know we have a great team."
While McCrimmon refused to blame the four-game losing skid, some of the players felt that was the reason.
"I think you’re always shocked when something like this happens," said fellow forward Reilly Smith. "A week and a half ago we were in first place in our division. And now it seems like we’re on a new path or direction.
"It feels as though if we had won our last four games we wouldn’t be here."
Personable goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said he was "mad" at himself for his part in what happened.
"It’s tough as a group to cost two coaches their jobs," Fleury said. "We have so much respect towards them. They’ve been very honest with us and respectful of the players – you’re not going to hear a bad thing about them. They loved the game, loved coming to the rink and we feel responsible for letting this happen.
"It’s a good wake-up call for all of us. Obviously, it’s easier to change two coaches than to change 15 guys. I think we need to hear the message loud and clear and turn things around."
Most of the players said they didn’t really know DeBoer other than playing against him, or in all-star game format.
DeBoer was head coach of the Sharks for four and a half seasons, from 2015-2019, reaching the playoffs in each of his full seasons with the club. He was let go 33 games into this season as the Sharks got off to a terrible start.
In the tight Western Conference, the Golden Knights feel they can regain solid playoff footing with a bit of a push.
"Like a lot of teams we had high hopes for the year, still have high hopes for the year," McCrimmon said. "We’re in a unique position. We’re right in the mix. It’s not a situation where the bottom fell out and we had no choice but to make a change.
"Proactively, this was our belief to do what’s best."
Gallant has a career NHL coaching record of 270-216-4-51.
In a strange twist, Gallant has already been named the Pacific Division coach for the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis on Jan. 25. We wonder if he will show up wearing a “Coach At Large” badge, as former Ottawa Rough Riders coach Urban Bowman once did at a Grey Cup.