What a weird and strange NHL season it’s been.
With no shortage of bombshells coming down, the latest was the shocking announcement that the Vegas Golden Knights had fired head coach Gerard Gallant, less than two seasons after he guided them to the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team and just months after a controversial five-minute major flipped Vegas’ fortunes in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks, and turned what looked like another series win into a defeat.
Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon labelled this firing as performance-based and if you only look at the standings you’ll see a Cup contender that’s lost four in a row, the most recent being a 4-2 defeat in Buffalo. At 24-19-6, Vegas’ 54 points are tied with Vancouver and Winnipeg in the Western Conference’s wild-card spots, but the Golden Knights have played two more games than both. Vegas’ .551 points percentage ranks 19th in the league.
But, as is usually the case, there’s more to the story. According to Natural Stat Trick the Golden Knights rank highly in a number of measures, and the tale of their struggles has more to do with below-average goaltending and a run of bad luck.
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Gallant is a players’ coach through and through, and given his recent success it likely won’t be long before he lands on his feet with another team. John Hynes was out of work for 34 days before the Nashville Predators hired him, and Peter DeBoer was unemployed for 35 days before Vegas hired him as Gallant’s replacement. What’s a good over/under for how long Gallant will be without a job, especially given the trade deadline is 41 days away and playoff races are heating up: 19.5?
Given that, it’s time for a little exercise. Looking around the league, there are a number of struggling teams, or teams with interim head coaches, who may be suddenly very interested in the newest available head coach. When someone like Gallant is out there it can spur a team into action that otherwise may have rode out a storm and been more patient about the process.
So where might Gallant head next? Here are a few possibilities:
DETROIT RED WINGS
No doubt Jeff Blashill has been in a tough spot from Day 1 in Detroit, but this is now his fifth season behind the bench and the team’s points percentage has declined every year he’s been at the helm. It’s also notable that Blashill is not GM Steve Yzerman’s hiring, but was promoted from Detroit’s AHL team in Grand Rapids by former GM Ken Holland after Mike Babcock left the organization.
So Yzerman still has to bring in “his guy” and Gallant could be it. They’re certainly familiar with each other, as they were teammates — and even linemates at times — for nine seasons in Detroit. Gallant was able to turn the non-playoff Florida Panthers into a post-season team in one year and his work with Vegas launched him well up the NHL coach rankings.
However, Yzerman has always been supportive of Blashill as the head coach, and as recently as last week he said: “We’ve had injuries from day one of training camp. Regardless of injuries, our record and our team’s performance is somewhat unfair to pin that on the coaching staff at this point. The injuries make it really difficult to really know what you truly have.”
But the equation has potentially changed with Gallant available. No one saw this coming and it’s bound to encourage some recalculations in a number of front offices.
Bob Hartley was tough. He was followed by Glen Gulutzan, who wasn’t hard enough on the players. Gulutzan was replaced by Bill Peters as a guy who would challenge the players more, but the revelations of past abuse in Carolina abruptly ended his tenure earlier this season when the two sides parted ways. And while Geoff Ward has steadied the ship, with Calgary going 13-6-1 under his watch, the fact is he’s still got that “interim” tag attached to him. And until that is done away with, questions will be asked about who the long-term answer is behind the bench.
Gallant would be a nice middle ground to what the Flames have had behind the bench recently. He’s a players’ coach, sure, but no one is going to walk all over him. Gallant has earned the respect of his charges at each stop and his success can’t be debated. The Flames locked into contender mode and need to be doing everything they can to optimize their chances. Is Gallant too good of a replacement to pass up?
The big question, though, is how would you demote Ward back to an assistant in favour of Gallant when he’s done an admirable job navigating the Flames through incredibly stormy waters. After the Peters situation, Ward calmed everything and Calgary and won his first seven games behind the bench. That was followed by a tough 2-5-1 stretch, but Ward didn’t allow that to spiral too much and now Calgary has won five of its six games in 2020 and is just two points out of the division lead.
There’s also not a close tie between Treliving and Gallant — certainly not as close as the one between Yzerman and Gallant. So there are plenty of reasons why this may not be a fit, but if Calgary wanted to wait until the off-season to make a call, it’d probably miss out on the chance to get Gallant.
Look, we’ll label this one as a long shot as well. GM Joe Sakic is not one to rush into a major decision and he’s been very supportive of head coach Jared Bednar, especially after he retained him following the disastrous 2016-17. Since then, Colorado has made gains and now, on paper, looks like an emerging powerhouse.
But, like Vegas, the Avalanche are going through a tough stretch, losing seven of their past nine games. Also like Vegas, this appears to be more bad luck than anything, as the Avs rank third in expected goals-for percentage at 5-on-5, second in Corsi-for percentage and 21st in shooting percentage over this time. But the fact is Colorado is now third in the Central, 11 points out of first place, and just two points clear of the wild card.
It would be a shock to see them let go of Bednar, but just about every coach firing this season can be described as such. The pressure is picking up from Avs fans and if the team drops its last three games (all at home) before the all-star break, we’ll wonder if Sakic will think of making a switch.
GM Jim Nill’s Dallas Stars are one of these teams that made an abrupt decision to move on from its coach, firing Jim Montgomery for “unprofessional conduct” and replacing him with assistant Rick Bowness on an interim basis. The Stars are cruising under Bowness, however, with a 10-4-1 record, so it’s not as though he’s been struggling in the new gig.
But again we have to wonder if this is a situation that’s just too good to pass up. Bowness, hypothetically, could return to his assistant role, which is what he’s served in for most of his near-30 years behind an NHL bench. Gallant would fill the head-coach job for the long-term — and be in a position to hit the ground running with a great team — and the rising Stars would (on paper) make a relatively smooth transition.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
For rivalry purposes, Gallant landing in San Jose would be just about perfect.
We already have the Game 7 meltdown to draw from, and the Evander Kane-Ryan Reaves stand-off is good for entertainment both on and off the ice. And remember, during the Vegas-San Jose first-round series last year DeBoer was critical of Gallant for “chirping” at his Sharks players from the bench. Ahead of that fateful seventh game, Gallant shot back:
“I really don’t want to talk about that, but I think I’m going to have to a little bit,” Gallant said. “For that clown to say that in the paper yesterday, it’s not right.”
He then explained what actually had happened:
“There might have been two incidents that happened, and I’ll tell you both incidents,” he said. “Logan Couture, I thought it was an embellishment, so I’m yelling at the referee. Not Logan Couture. The other one, in Game 2, Evander Kane, he is yelling at Ryan Reaves between the bench. Evander yells at me, he says, ‘hey coach, when are you going to send your big guy out on the ice and play him more than four minutes?’ I said, ‘he’s played 10 minutes every game and he’s going to play a lot more.’ Those are the two times. If I’m going to be a chirper and a loudmouth, I think people know me as a coach and respect me as a coach. If he’s going to yap about that, that’s a little unclassy for me.”
After the Sharks fired DeBoer a little over a month ago, assistant was promoted to the head job on an interim basis. The Sharks haven’t had the same bounce back Calgary has under their interim, though, going 6-7-2 since DeBoer was let go.
There are deeper problems in San Jose, such as a thin blue line and a goaltending tandem that has been at the bottom of the league for two years now (though we will say it’s been better of late). The Sharks trail a playoff spot by eight points right now, so while we may not get another DeBoer-Gallant playoff series this year, it would at least keep them in the same division going forward.
And if the result of all this is that Gallant and DeBoer end up switching teams? That’s just a great storyline.
It feels like Bruce Boudreau has been on the “hot seat” for two years now, first following a second Round 1 loss and then after last year’s finish outside of the playoffs. Adding to the intrigue around his future with the Wild is that he’s currently in the last year of his contract. The Wild are again tracking towards a playoff miss, currently sitting eight points out, and it may be a good time for GM Bill Guerin to make his first coaching hire.
For those reasons, Gallant could be a fit here too. While Guerin hasn’t rushed to make any moves since taking over for Paul Fenton, who was fired after just one year on the job, this roster really feels stale and in need of some turnover. They are stuck in that mushy middle — no clear way to get back to the playoffs as a contender, and too good to really sink to the bottom and draft a surefire game-changer. Maybe, the first thing Guerin should try with this group before exploring a teardown is to bring in a new voice behind the bench — and Gallant may very well be the best available right now.
Again, this would be a shocking switch because, really, Paul Maurice has done very well through his seven seasons as the Jets’ head coach. In fact, this year may be one of his finer coaching jobs with the team. He’s tried some new things, such as moving Patrik Laine to the top line, splitting up Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele — and despite having a blue line that was devastated by off-season losses, Maurice has managed to lean on his offence (and a terrific start by Connor Hellebuyck) to keep the Jets in the playoff race.
However, like Boudreau, Maurice is believed to be in the final year of his contract so the future isn’t certain. That’s already led to rumours that the current Jets coach could wind up in Seattle, though Maurice recently stated his desire to stay in Winnipeg: “I’m here as long as Mark [Chipman] and Kevin [Cheveldayoff] want me to be here. This is home for me. I love this place. I’m not looking to go anywhere. It’ll be kicking and screaming on the way out, that’ll be how that transition happens.
But the reality is that here again is a team on the playoff bubble that could be looking to make a move. And, outside of the past two trade deadline when he moved a first-round pick for centre help, GM Cheveldayoff has traditionally been quiet on that front. Of course, he’s only ever made the one change behind the bench as well, letting go of Claude Noel for Maurice in 2013-14.
If Cheveldayoff made this call it would certainly be a surprise. But that’s what’s defined the NHL season so far, isn’t it?