The last time Gerard Gallant was fired, the now-infamous image spread like a wildfire. Mere months after finishing second in Jack Adams Award voting, there Gallant was in his taupe suit, collar open and tie removed, stepping into the cab that ultimately whisked him away from the Florida Panthers. In the aftermath, of course, Gallant said the cab was his decision. He didn’t want to wait around for a car service. But that doesn’t change the image, not does it change that the timing of the firing made it one of the more bizarre in recent history. He was a heralded coach doing excellent work with an up-and-coming team. No one saw it coming.
Unfortunate as it is, too, it sure seems like swift and sudden exits are becoming something of a trend for Gallant. There was no cab involved this time, no odd imagery associated with his firing – that Gallant avoided – but to the shock of nearly the entire hockey world Wednesday morning, the Vegas Golden Knights announced Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelly have been relieved of their duties. The move comes little more than two and a half seasons after Gallant was brought aboard by the expansion franchise, which he led to the Stanley Cup final in its inaugural season and with whom he had compiled a 118-75-20 record and .601 points percentage over two-plus seasons. Former San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer was announced as Gallant’s replacement.
“In order for our team to reach its full potential, we determined a coaching change was necessary,” said Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon in a release. “Our team is capable of more than we have demonstrated this season. We would like to thank Gerard and Mike for their service to the Vegas Golden Knights. They were both instrumental to the success we have enjoyed in our first two-plus seasons and we wish them all the best moving forward.”
There is, indeed, some truth to McCrimmon’s statement. The Golden Knights are, as he said, capable of more than they have demonstrated. In a season in which the Pacific Division is inarguably the NHL’s weakest, that Vegas finds itself on the outside of the post-season picture looking in with 49 games in the can is undoubtedly an underachievement. That Vegas has also dropped each of its past four games, including losses to non- or fringe-playoff teams such as the Los Angeles Kings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres, is also a mark against the Golden Knights. Add to it the slow start Vegas experienced, which has contributed to the team’s status as a non-playoff team as it prepares for its 50th game of the campaign, and it’s true the Golden Knights haven't met expectations.
But there’s much about Gallant’s dismissal that is absolutely, positively befuddling. Yes, the Golden Knights struggled early and of late, but in the 19 games prior to the four-game losing streak, Gallant’s club was beginning to play like the true-blue contender most projected. The 13-4-2 record Vegas had compiled before their recent dip in performance, which included a remarkable 5-4 come-from-behind overtime victory against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, seemed a sure sign that Vegas was beginning to turn things around and round into form. And then there’s the under-the-hood numbers.
For the duration of Gallant’s tenure, the Golden Knights were an advanced-statistical darling, a heavy puck possession team that played not only with pace but defensive mindfulness. To wit, under Gallant’s tutelage, Vegas ranked third among all NHL clubs in Corsi percentage (52.8), third in shots percentage (52.6), third in scoring chance percentage (53.2), seventh in high-danger chance percentage (52.8) and third in expected goals percentage (53.1) at 5-on-5 dating back to the beginning of their inaugural season.
Furthermore, the Golden Knights were starting to come on as a group this season and play that same brand of hockey that had made them so successful under Gallant in the past. Despite the recent string of defeats, Vegas’ ranks in the staple advanced statistical categories noted above were all exemplary. Measured against the rest of the NHL, the Golden Knights ranked no lower than third in a single one of the aforementioned metrics across their past 25 games. The performance, despite the results, gave reason to believe Gallant’s group had the makings of a contender.
What, then, led to his demise? To be sure, the consecutive losses didn’t help, nor did the spot in the standings. But if there were two true catalysts, they were Vegas’ inability to capitalize on its chances and goaltending, the latter surely at greater fault than the former.
While Marc-Andre Fleury was named an NHL All-Star – he has since opted out of the event – the performance of he and Malcolm Subban, who have combined to start all but one Vegas game this season, has left much to be desired. Together, the netminders have a .903 save percentage at all strengths and .912 SP at five-a-side. Among the 54 goaltenders with 700 minutes played at 5-on-5, Fleury ranks 40th in SP, Subban ranks 44th. Their goals-saved above average marks are similarly substandard. And considering they’ve faced the 21st- and eighth-fewest shots against per hour at 5-on-5, respectively, among that group of 54 goaltenders the defensive performance in front of either keeper is difficult to blame. This was, is and will remain Vegas' greatest issue right now, not Gallant, and more consistent performance in the crease is what's needed for the Golden Knights to get back into contention.
No longer is the performance of Fleury and/or Subban a concern of Gallant’s, however. The same goes for the inability of the Golden Knights’ offensive weapons to score with any measure of consistency. (Only one player, Max Pacioretty, has cracked 20 goals, and Vegas’ team shooting percentage, 8.9, is the ninth-lowest in the NHL.) These now become Peter DeBoer’s problems to solve, though both are frankly issues that seem likely to correct themselves over the final third of the campaign. Despite the results, all the metrics were beginning to trend in the right direction for the Golden Knights, and DeBoer stands to be the beneficiary.
Surely, DeBoer is no slouch. He’s a fine coach with a quality track record who has coached two franchises to conference championships over the past decade. Chances are he’ll be able to coach the Golden Knights into the post-season, just as it was likely Gallant would have done the same. None of that will change that DeBoer’s hiring and Gallant’s firing has the distinct feeling of a reactionary move. And that's why the Golden Knights have to pray that this is a gamble that pays off with a Stanley Cup celebration. Anything less and this is the exact brand of decision that will be questioned for years to come.
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