The Florida Panthers have a lot to consider this off-season. After going from the Atlantic Division’s best to a non-playoff team over the course of a single season, there will be questions about the roster makeup, which players are essential to the core moving forward and, maybe most importantly, what to do behind the bench.
As far as the latter goes, this campaign was a bizarre one for the Panthers. Coming off of the most successful regular season in franchise history, Florida was looking to repeat as division champions and continue to push forward with a crop of young, talented players. Injuries in the early days of the season hurt the Panthers, to be sure, but now-former coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t given much leeway. Following 21 games, over which the Cats were 11-9-1, Gallant was relieved of his duties as coach, giving way for GM Tom Rowe, who had coached the AHL affiliate Portland Pirates the year prior, to take over. The experiment didn’t work, though.
The Panthers may not have been world-beaters under Gallant, but Florida remained above .500 and in the thick of the playoff race. With Rowe at the helm, the season slipped away, with the Panthers going 22-26-10 over their past 58 games, good for a .466 points percentage.
That Florida has struggled under Rowe hasn’t gone unnoticed — least of all by the fans. Ahead of Monday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, a banner plane was spotted outside the BB&T Center with a message reading, “Rowe must go! Call him a cab!” The former sentiment is quite clear in meaning, while the latter is a reference to Gallant’s firing, which saw him leave the arena in a cab and not on the team bus.
Organizationally, the Panthers reportedly feel Rowe hasn’t been able to get the job done, either. According to the Miami Herald’s George Richards, Rowe won’t be back behind the bench next season, though he may continue with the Panthers in a front office role.
The good news for the Panthers is that this off-season provides management with plenty of sound options for an NHL-experienced bench boss. In fact, this could be one of the best off-seasons in recent memory to be in search of a coach with some NHL experience. Here are five potential candidates for the Panthers’ coaching gig next season:
Former: Coach, Montreal Canadiens; Pittsburgh Penguins
Trophy Case: Eastern Conference Champion (2007-08)
Were it not for the Boston Bruins firing Claude Julien mid-season, there’s a fair chance Therrien would still be employed by the Canadiens. At the time he was relieved of his duties, Montreal was tops in the Atlantic Division, but Julien was set to be one of the most sought after coaches in the entire league with the Canadiens being one team that was very clearly interested in his services.
As for Therrien, though, he’s proven time and again that he can turn a team into a contender and he’s clearly grown as a coach over the past several seasons. In his first four seasons as a coach, Therrien was able to produce only one winning campaign, but when he landed in Pittsburgh as the Penguins coach, he took a young group to the Stanley Cup final in his third year. He was fired the next season, however, and the Penguins went on to win the title.
In Montreal over the past five seasons, Therrien has had some exceptional seasons, and one thing he could bring to the Panthers is knowledge of the division. He also has the ability to come in and almost immediately command respect. He’s one of only 36 coaches in league history to win 400 games.
Former: Coach, St. Louis Blues; Columbus Blue Jackets; Philadelphia Flyers; Dallas Stars
Trophy Case: Stanley Cup (1998-99), Western Conference Champion (1998-99; 1999-00), President’s Trophy (1997-98, 1998-99), Jack Adams Award (2011-12), Olympic Gold (2002, 2010, 2014), World Cup Gold (2004)
Repeatedly brought back on one-year deals in order to attempt to take St. Louis to the next level, Hitchcock was finally let go this past season when everything was breaking the wrong way for the Blues. That doesn’t change the fact that Hitchcock is arguably one of the best minds to ever step behind an NHL bench, though. And even if one were to dispute Hitchcock’s standing as one of the best strategic coaches, his numbers can’t be overlooked.
There are only three coaches in NHL history with more wins than Hitchcock’s 781, and with two more victories in the NHL, ‘Hitch’ will surpass Al Arbour on the all-time list and move into sole possession of third place behind Joel Quenneville and the legendary Scotty Bowman.
If there was one coach who could immediately bring structure to the Panthers, it would be Hitchcock. The difficulty, however, might be figuring out how he fits with a team as young as Florida. The Cats have some veterans, sure, but the core has yet to hit its prime and mistakes are going to be made. Hitchcock might have to allow the kids more rope than he’s used to in order for it to really work in Florida.
Current: Dallas Stars
Former: Coach, Buffalo Sabres; Asst. Coach, Florida Panthers
Trophy Case: Eastern Conference Champion (1998-99), Jack Adams Award (2005-06), Olympic Gold (2014)
Ruff is a wild-card on this list because he’s not exactly a free agent coach quite yet. All signs point to this being his final season with the Stars, though. His contract is up, Dallas finds themselves outside of the post-season and despite some solid seasons with the Stars, Ruff’s teams haven’t been able to crack through the second round of the playoffs. Chances are slim he sticks around in Dallas beyond this season.
Florida would be an interesting fit for him if he moves on, too. Ruff’s ability to be successful with the high-powered, run-and-gun offense in Dallas was hindered by the team’s liabilities on the back end and in goal. The Panthers don’t really suffer from the same issues, though. The defense isn’t world-beating but it’s solid. And few teams boast a one-two punch in goal that’s quite like Roberto Luongo and James Reimer. That’s a stellar duo and gives Ruff a big upgrade from the Antti Niemi-Kari Lehtonen combination.
It’d be great to see what Ruff could get out of some of the young stars, as well. Tyler Seguin broke out in a big way in Dallas and maybe Ruff’s systems could have a similar effect on Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck.
Former: Coach, New York Islanders
Trophy Case: N/A
Capuano seemed to have the Islanders moving in the right direction in 2015-16, but they were in the Eastern Conference basement when he was let go midway through the campaign. One can either chalk that up to Capuano or chalk it up to the amount of major changes the roster underwent over the course of the past-offseason. Either way, he’s out of a job and available for hire.
The intriguing thing about Capuano might be that he’s proven he can take a promising team and turn it into something. He was helped out by being given Johnny Boychuck, Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic to work with on the blueline in addition to this top talents such as John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, but it could be argued there would be more talent at his disposal in Florida.
The Panthers don’t have a pure offensive threat quite like Tavares, but the offense is spread out with plenty of potential in young talents. Huberdeau still seems to be on the cusp of really breaking out and Barkov still has room to grow as a player, which has to have some Panthers fans salivating. Add in a blueline that includes Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and a few prospects and you have a team ready for its next step. Capuano could be the one to unlock the potential.
Current: Utica Comets
Trophy Case: N/A
For years now, Green has been one of the coaches who some have considered to be oh-so-close to an NHL gig without actually landing one. His work with the AHL’s Utica Comets has been admirable and includes post-season appearances in each of the past two seasons, though a third-straight trip to the playoffs is in question this year. Is Green’s resume as long as other top candidates? Does he have any coaching experience in the NHL? No and no, but that shouldn’t exclude him from the running.
One thing Green has going for him is his success in the WHL. While a major junior league can’t truly be compared to the most challenging professional league, Green’s success in the WHL is proof that he knows how to work with and get the most out of young players. That would be one of his challenges in Florida. The aforementioned core group of players is going to need guidance and leeway, something Green is used to giving in both the WHL and AHL at this point in his coaching career.
Green could bring what he doesn’t have in NHL experience in proven success with young teams and developing players. That’s a commodity, and with many considering him a consistent top candidate for an NHL job, it’s only a matter of time before he makes the leap to the NHL gig. If the Canucks’ job isn’t open at season’s end, maybe Green ends up with the Panthers come 2017-18.
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