If there’s anyone out there who can figure out exactly what the game plan is with the Florida Panthers these days, feel free to let us know. They apparently weren’t intending on deciding their head coach’s fate until after a six-game road trip that is scheduled to end next week, but a second-period collapse in which they were outshot 13-7 and outscored 3-0 Sunday sealed Gerard Gallant’s fate. One bad period, after the Panthers had gone 5-2-0 in their previous seven going into that game, was apparently the tipping point.
That makes sense. Well, almost as much sense as “promoting” your GM to president of hockey operations – effectively taking hockey decisions away from him – after having the best regular season in franchise history, then replacing him with a guy who has never held a GM post in his life. Then putting that same GM behind the bench and saying that your former GM is once again going to be a part of a three-headed brain trust that will be responsible for all player personnel decisions.
Panthers’ owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu and their crew of military men running the Panthers have a reputation around the NHL as guys who think they’re smarter than everyone else. And hey, maybe they are. Panthers’ fans had better hope that’s the case, because when they literally kicked Gallant to the curb outside the arena in Raleigh Sunday night, they were making a bold statement. And it had less to do with the Panthers’ play than the fact that they want the world to know they’re going to run the Panthers the way they see fit.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re going to purge your organization of solid, good hockey people, you’d better be pretty sure that you have a better way of doing things. So far, that better way of doing things is to install people with limited NHL experience on their resumes. Even Tom Rowe, whose meteoric rise from minor league coach to assistant GM to GM to interim head coach, is 60 years old and he’s never run an NHL bench as a head coach (although he has a lot of coaching experience in the minors and is a former NHL assistant). Of course, he had never been a GM either, but that didn’t stop the Panthers from giving him that role.
This had almost nothing to do with the fact that the Panthers had a terrible second period against the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday afternoon, or the fact that they had a rather disappointing 11-10-1 record, despite the fact they had injuries to a number of key players and were getting sub-par production from a number of others. Through the first quarter of the season, the Panthers were neither great nor terrible and there would have been a lot of time for Gallant to get things on the right track.
This had everything to do with philosophy. Rowe and ownership had one vision of building a team and Gallant wasn’t completely on board, something Rowe acknowledged in a conference call Monday afternoon. Rowe wanted a team built on speed and puck pursuit and Gallant wanted more size. “There was definitely a philosophical divide,” Rowe said. “Were we on the same page every day of the week? No, when it came to that. The philosophy was different and that did weigh into the decision.”
It was a decision that was apparently so heavily contemplated that Gallant’s luggage was taken off the team bus after the game, before he was picked up by a “car service” (that’s what the Panthers called it) that looked an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill taxi. We say this because the vehicle picking him up at the side of the road outside the PNC Arena in Raleigh was yellow with a checkerboard design on it and was emblazoned with the word ‘taxi’. He had help with his bags, of course, from an employee of the Hurricanes. Any way you look at it or try to justify it, the optics of that look horrendous. So much for no man left behind.
But, as we said, firing the coach and basically dismissing a team’s entire front office is an owner’s prerogative. (Let’s not forget, also, that a very good hockey man in Brian Skrudland left the Panthers as the director of player personnel in 2015.) And it’s also his prerogative to install people with a heavy background in analytics. And this is not, repeat not, a referendum on the state of analytics, any more than the terrible start by the Arizona Coyotes is. The Panthers struggles have a lot less to do with analytics than they do with the fact that Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen have been injured for all or part of this season and both Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad have struggled. Aleksander Barkov had a goal in each of his first two games this season and hasn’t scored once since then.
So now the Panthers will be coached by a 60-year-old who has never been a head coach in the NHL before. And their personnel decisions will be made by Eric Joyce, who has a degree in systems engineering from West Point and a master’s from Harvard; Steve Werier, who until this summer was the Panthers’ vice-president in charge of legal affairs; and, Tallon.
What could possibly go wrong with that set-up? With all their military acumen, you’d think the Panthers would know that it’s important to have one person with his hand on the tiller for the most important decisions. But these guys apparently know what they’re doing. Undoubtedly it’s all part of a grand plan that will come to wonderful fruition one day soon. Or not.