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Better Know a Coaching Candidate: Gerard Gallant

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In a surprise shakeup for a good Golden Knights team, management took the step of firing coach Gerard Gallant. Gallant is just two years removed from a Jack Adams Award and the feat of guiding a first-year expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final. Could be the answer behind the bench for a floundering Devils franchise?

NHL: FEB 01 Golden Knights at Hurricanes
Fun fact: He looks mad in a lot of his pictures.
Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After the surprisingly-timed removal of Ray Shero this past weekend, the NHL was abuzz about the Devils and what comes next for their franchise. Just two days later, the Golden Knights one-upped the Devils and made a perhaps even more shocking move with the removal of their coach Gerard Gallant. With the organization in flux and an ownership group that wants results soon, could the Devils benefit from bringing in a coach like Gallant to get them on track? As far as coaching hires go, it certianly seems like the Devils could do worse.

The past month-plus has been rife with Devils employees of the past and present getting fired and hired. Ray Shero was of course fired this past weekend. John Hynes was fired in early December and hired by Nashville in early January. Old friend Pete DeBoer was fired shortly after Hynes was in December and then hired by the Golden Knights immediately after they fired Gallant. Some rumors floating around suggested that Gallant was fired because of DeBoer’s availability. Merits of such a decision notwithstanding, could the former Devil possibly usurping Gallant in Vegas have opened the door for the Devils to secure their next head coach?

Immediately after Gallant’s firing, Devils fans took to Twitter to indicate that brining Gallant east might not be such a bad idea. A sampling:

This phenomenon is admittedly not limited to just Devils fans right now, but the Devils are the team perhaps most in need of a new direction within their coaching ranks. Alain Nasreddine has done a serviceable job as the interim head coach, but with the whole organization in flux and the team still critically lacking structure in their own end on many nights, I don’t think there is any reason for the Devils to forgo good coaching options if they come available. And based on his recent tenure, Gallant is certianly a coach that seems to get strong results out of his rosters. Lets take a look at Gallant’s coaching history.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Way back in the mid aughts, Gallant actually headed up the still-fledgling Columbus Blue Jackets for a stretch that straddled the 2004-05 lockout. In the middle of the 2003-04 season, Gallant took over for Doug MacLean, who had himself taken over Dave King (the first coach of the Blue Jackets) the season prior. Gallant guided the team to a modest improvement over the rest of that season, and would keep his job through the lockout. In 2005-06 Gallant would get the Blue Jackets to 35 wins, which while unimpressive on its face, was actually the high-water mark for the franchise up to that point and is a win total that would only be eclipsed once until after the 2012 lockout. The 3rd place finish Gallant guided them to would be their only finish above fourth place in their entire 12-season run within the Central Division before they were realigned into the Eastern Conference.

That season would be Gallant’s only full one in Columbus, though, as he would be fired 15 games into the 2006-07 season after starting 5-9-1. Overall, there isn't a lot to go on with Gallant’s tenure in Columbus, but in context the results at least don’t look too bad. The Blue Jackets had a much more traditional expansion team arc than Gallant’s latest stop in Vegas, and were pretty much a wall-to-wall mess until around 2013. His 35-win campaign was the second best of that pre-2013 stretch with only the one year the Jackets made the playoffs behind Ken Hitchcock in 2008-09 (in which case they were promptly swept/massacred by the Red Wings) being better. It would be a long time until Gallant got another shot behind an NHL bench after that, though.

Non-NHL Head Coach Interlude

After getting fired by Columbus, Gallant would bounce to a few different places before getting another head coaching shot. He spent a couple years on Scott Gordon’s staff in Long Island before heading to the QMJHL to become the head coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs. It would be hard to have a much more successful run as Gallant had in Saint John, as in three seasons, he finished atop the league’s regular season standings three times, made the QMJHL Finals three times, and won the QMJHL Championship twice, also adding a Memorial Cup title in 2010-11. After that short run of largely uninterrupted dominance in the QMJHL, Gallant jumped back to the NHL ranks, becoming an assistant on Michel Therrien’s staff in Montreal. After two largely successful seasons on Montreal’s staff, Gallant would finally get the call to be an NHL head coach again for the 2014-15 season.

Florida Panthers

Gallant would get the call to help try to get the perpetually about-to-break-through Florida Panthers over the hump in the 2014-15 season. Before Gallant’s hiring, the Panthers had made the playoffs just twice in the previous 16 seasons, most recently in 2011-12 under Kevin Dineen (where they would suffer a heartbreaking exit against the team whose coach they had fired at the end of the previous season, yes, Pete DeBoer’s Devils). Dineen got fired near the beginning of 2013-14 after the bottom had fallen out in each of his seasons subsequent to the playoff appearance. Gallant took over a team that had just finished with 36 points in 48 games in the short 2013 season and then 66 points in 2013-14.

Gallant led an immediate turnaround in Florida, with the team instantly becoming competitive again under his watch. The Panthers ground their way back into contention, being in a position to go for it at the deadline. They would add none other than the ageless Jaromir Jagr from the imploded New Jersey Devils to help with their playoff push. They would end up falling well short, though, despite a respectable 91 points, as the playoff cutoff would land at a very high 98 in the east that year. In terms of underlying numbers, the Panthers were pretty decent that year, finishing 15th in CF% and xGF%. It was a solid first year for Gallant.

The following season would represent probably the best regular season in the franchise’s history. The Panthers finished with above 100 points in the standings for the first time in the 23-year history of the franchise. The Panthers’ underlying numbers had actually slipped a little bit that season, finishing 20th in CF% and 17th in xGF%, but they were still middle of the pack and behind Gallant with Jagr as the star with young talents like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad around him, they had set a franchise record for wins and points. They met another disappointing end in round one of the playoffs, but it seemed like the Panthers were a team destined for greater things.

Gallant would be at the center of a surprising exit less than two months into the following season. The team had emerged from the gate sluggishly, but had a decent enough 11-10-1 record with decent possession stats. But in the midst of a possible front-office power struggle and on the heels of high expectations coming out of a summer where the Panthers had handed out a lot of substantial contracts, Gallant was fired. It was an abrupt end to what was a pretty successful run in Florida for Gallant, where he’d finish up with a 96-65-25 record. The Panthers haven’t yet made the playoffs since Gallant’s departure.

Vegas Golden Knights

Gallant would find work after not too long, landing a job with the expansion Golden Knights the following April. With the history of expansion franchises in the NHL, it seemed like a tall order, but with new rules around the expansion draft, the NHL hoped for a more competitive expansion team this time around. After that draft, not many people thought the Golden Knights were a team destined for greatness. That group of cast-offs, guided by Gallant as head coach, would become one of the biggest NHL stories of this century, though.

Under Gallant, the Vegas Golden Knights would finish with an astonishing 109 points as an expansion team. No expansion team had finished with a winning record before, let alone ended up as division champs. Exploiting a new expansion process and making suckers out of at least a few teams (most notably the Florida Panthers, who somehow tricked themselves into giving Vegas both Jonathan Marchessault and Riley Smith), George McPhee built a roster that worked with Gallant at the helm. Vegas was no fluke, as they had fairly strong underlying numbers (11th in CF% and 13th in xGF%) and they rode a wave of chips on shoulders all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell just short of the mountaintop, losing to the Capitals in five games.

Many wondered if the Golden Knights would return to Earth in season two, but instead, they actually got better by a lot of metrics. Gallant led the Knights to another playoff appearance, and while the team slipped to 93 standings points, they actually saw their underlying numbers soar to 3rd best in the league in both CF% and xGF%. Vegas also seemed to be on their way to eliminating the Sharks for the second year in a row until a fateful (and questionable) major penalty call cracked the door for San Jose to mount a miraculous comeback, as they erased a three-goal deficit and took the lead over the course of that major penalty. Vegas would rebound to score with a minute left to send it to overtime, but they would fall in OT to cap one of the most insane and heartbreaking Game 7 losses in the history of the league. It was a bizarre and painful way to end a season, but the Knights remained a good team.

This season, Vegas has been locked in a tight battle/slog in the Pacific Division, riding a bit of a roller coaster of results like many of their divisional counterparts. The numbers still say this is a very good team that just needs a little bit better luck, though. Success breeds impatience, though, and after cruising to the playoffs in year one and sweating it a little bit more in year two, management in Vegas was apparently not interested in being on the playoff bubble in year three, so in a bit of a shocking move (again), Gallant got the axe. They have a team with strong possession and expected goals numbers, but aren’t getting results, the remedy for which they determined would be Pete DeBoer, which, hey, sure, why not.

Is He a Fit?

That brings us to today, where Gallant is now available, has a reputation for getting teams to play a cohesive and structured game, and will inevitably be looking for a new gig. The Devils, on the other hand, are a team with some decent talent, a quasi-vacant coaching position, and a roster badly in need of a coach who can get them to play more in sync. If it sounds like I’ve been advocating for Gallant’s hire in this piece, well, it’s because I am. Gallant’s track record is pretty consistently solid, with even his early, ultimately unsuccessful stop in Columbus looking fairly decent in context. He seems to get strong results out of his teams relative to expectations, and his work in Vegas’s first year has to be one of the best coaching feats in the history of the league.

There are complicating factors on the Devils’ end, of course, chief among them that the whole damn organization seemingly has the interim tag on it right now. Can the Devils hire a full-time coach when they only have an interim GM? And do they still want to give more time to Alain Nasreddine to get his footing as a head coach? The Devils have shown some sparks behind the interim bench boss but the play remains inconsistent, and the Devils are liable to get blown out any night their goalie is even a little bit off. I’m sympathetic to Nasreddine’s predicament and I’m not ready to make a judgement one way or the other on his head coaching, but if the Devils are serious about making a quick return to competitiveness, a known quantity with some solid resume points like Gerard Gallant is probably a better bet than a head coaching question mark who was part of the previous failed coaching regime.

For me, the interim GM side of things represents the bigger obstacle. If the Devils move to make a GM hire that isn’t Tom Fitzgerald, would they be able to sell them on already having a head coach in place? It’s not a particularly common practice in any sport for a coach to precede a GM in the hiring order, and that’s because every GM is going to want to hire their guy. If I were the one at Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment making the call, though, I think I’d jump at the chance to install a proven coach like Gallant to oversee the Devils’ young roster, even if it meant maybe dropping the interim tag from Tom Fitzgerald to do it. If the Devils remain in limbo, though, it may lead to missing out on chances to hire solid replacements for their multiple vacant-ish positions.