The hockey world was stunned two Sundays ago, when the Florida Panthers fired 2015-16 Jack Adams runner-up Gerard Gallant after a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The firing was even more grim after Gallant was seen standing on a street corner with his bags, awaiting a taxi after the contest in Raleigh, N.C.
Fans were furious. Reporters were voicing their opinions more than ever. Twitter was ablaze with disdain toward the Panthers organization, most notably to president of hockey operations Dale Tallon and general manager Tom Rowe.
The most clueless front office in the NHL fires Gerard Gallant as coach Guess the computer boys ran the numbers and it didn't add up.
— steve simmons (@simmonssteve) November 28, 2016
Foolish firing of G Gallant by @FlaPanthers. Seems like an organization that is over analyzing too many things.
— Billy Jaffe (@BJaffe) November 28, 2016
Improved from 66 to 91 points in his 1st year, then to club-record 47 wins and 103 points in 2nd. Game above .500 this year. In Florida. Ok. https://t.co/DlxRwISnCj
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) November 28, 2016
Florida Panthers make coaching change. The struggles have nothing to do with Gerard Gallant This will not be received well in hky world.
— Daren Millard (@darenmillard) November 28, 2016
The #FlaPanthers are a mess. Owners letting analytics hounds take over and run the show. Panic move firing the coach. Laughable. (1/2)
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 28, 2016
As it goes in professional sports, coaching is more a what have you done for me lately, than it is an overall barometer of success. The fact that the Panthers were 11-10-1 at the time of the firing overshadowed the fact that the southern Florida team went 47-26-9 last season, winning the Atlantic Division title and making the playoffs for just the second time in the last 15 seasons.
His 96-65-25 overall record with Florida is something to be admired, but management felt it was time to move on.
Of course, there were other factors that led to Gallant losing his position and GM Rowe taking his spot behind the bench. This mostly had to do with the team’s new direction.
Panthers Have Moved Into an Analytical Age
In 2013, the Panthers were sold to Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu of Virtu Financial. Change up top almost always leads to changes below, and the Panthers slowly started moving toward a different mentality when creating a winning hockey franchise.
Much like the Moneyball approach in baseball, the Panthers are one of numerous teams to look at the stats behind the stats. Rather than using the age-old method of the eyeball test, Viola and Cifu wanted a cost-effective method of producing a well-rounded roster. The new owners knew that the franchise, which ranked in the bottom 70 percent of the league in attendance for seven consecutive years before acquiring them, couldn’t compete with big-market teams for top-end free agents.
Thanks to advanced stats, the Panthers were able to start slowly putting pieces in place to become a competitive team without high-priced players.
This began with minor moves to bring in supplementary pieces to the team’s core, which included former first-round picks Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad. In July 2015, the Panthers acquired Reilly Smith from the Boston Bruins and removed certain players, such as Jimmy Hayes and Brad Boyes, through various methods.
After the Panthers’ dominant 2015-16 season, Florida truly began making changes.
In May, the team promoted Tallon, moving him from GM to his current position. Rowe, who joined the organization in 2013-14 as AHL San Antonio’s head coach, was promoted from associate general manager (a position he received in January), to GM. Eric Joyce and Steve Werier, both administration members prior, were also promoted to assistant general managers.
Just 10 days later, Rowe’s first roster move as GM occurred. He moved top-three defenseman Erik Gudbranson to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for forward Jared McCann, in what was considered a questionable move by many. However, when looking at the enhanced stats, Gudbranson posted undesirable numbers in SAT (minus-123) and USAT (minus-114).
Think of it this way: if a team trades a high-priced player away for draft picks, many would consider it a salary dump. This trade might resemble an enhanced-statistics dump.
After that, the Panthers traded for and signed defenseman Keith Yandle, who notoriously has posted respectable enhanced statistics throughout his career. After that, the team signed Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault, both positive advanced stats players.
The transformation was almost complete. The only part left was ensuring the team’s coaching staff was on board with the franchise’s direction.
Gerard Gallant Is Old School
Gallant, a former NHL coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and now formerly of the Panthers, owns a career record of 153-142-4-34. While his wins are impressive considering the teams he’s manned, he could not be relied upon to carry the management’s word down to its players.
Put frankly, Gallant is not a believer in advanced statistics.
In August 2015, Gallant and then-assistant coach Mike Kelly (who was also fired with Gallant), discussed how advanced stats either show what they already see from tape, or how they are completely useless.
Gallant even used an example of a player who boasted great advanced numbers, but he personally didn’t want on his roster.
“I couldn’t stand watching him on the ice,” Gallant said at a fundraising event. “I didn’t like the way he played one bit. Some of it is really good, but some of it, you can’t get fooled by it.”
If the management team and the coaching staff are not on the same page, chances are, the coaching staff will be moving on rather quickly, no matter the past success.
Was It the Right Time?
If the question is was it the right time to get the coaching staff on the same page as the management team, then the answer is a resounding yes.
However, remember that bolded phrase up above? The one that read “After the Panthers’ dominant 2015-16 season, Florida truly began making changes.” Isn’t it odd to completely change a team’s direction just after the best season the franchise has ever put together?
It is an unorthodox move. Gallant, a year removed from narrowly losing the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach, was trucking the Panthers toward greatness after a memorable 2015-16 campaign. Sure, his slow start this season was worrisome for many, but the team was facing injuries to key players, including Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Jussi Jokinen and Alex Petrovic.
At the time of the firing, the Panthers sat in fifth place of the Atlantic, a division the franchise captured last season.
With success comes higher salaries. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who only employ seven players from their 2010 championship team (with Brian Campbell leaving and returning in that time).
Players expect to be paid for the team’s success, and Panthers management did their best to put themselves ahead of expiring contracts or players demanding expanded roles within the lineup. They are a budget team that has to move pieces laterally in order to stay in the top half of the NHL.
However, the timing does seem off for the franchise to start making semi-extreme roster changes while making an overhaul behind the bench (especially when considering Gallant signed a two-year contract extension this summer). The management team truly placed themselves between a rock and a hard place when they kept an eye-test coach and allowed him to run an advanced-stats roster.
The Present & Future
Since the firing, the Panthers have posted a dismal 1-2-3 record with Rowe behind the team’s bench. What may be more alarming is the Panthers’ 1-3 record in overtime and the shootout. Under Gallant, the Panthers were a much better 6-1 in extra time.
A coaching change won’t affect a team’s performance overnight. Until Rowe can install his system and get the players he wants playing the minutes he expects them to, this team won’t see much of a change in performance. This can take weeks, sometimes months, before a change is noticed.
For Gallant, it is expected he will be back behind an NHL bench as soon as this season, if another coach is relieved of his duties. Many believe, though, that he is a top candidate for the new Las Vegas franchise, the Golden Knights, who are set to begin play in 2017-18.
For a team that is not taking an analytics approach, Gallant is an attractive option. His resume more than speaks for itself in terms of getting results out of what was once a disappointing franchise.
Feature image courtesy Dinur | Flickr
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