Not long after the Panthers allowed 3 straight goals en route to a 3-2 loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, news broke that the organization had fired head coach Gerard Gallant and his assistant Mike Kelly.
Gallant was originally hired by the Panthers and their new ownership group on June 21, 2014 to succeed then-interim head coach Peter Horacek. He had previously served as the coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL between stints behind the bench with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Montreal Canadiens.
“In seeking to earn a second consecutive playoff berth and bring a Stanley Cup to South Florida, we believe that new leadership is required immediately,” said Panthers’ owner Vincent Viola.
Over the past two seasons, Gallant (96-65-25) led the Panthers to the most improved team in the NHL following the 2014-15 campaign, the franchises first playoff berth in 4 years, a division title, and a 103-point finish. Gallant was signed to a two-year contract extension with the team in January that would’ve kept him in the fold through the 2018-19 season.
“The philosophy [between the front office and Gallant] was different, and that did weigh into the decision of last night,” said Tom Rowe, who will take over as the the Panthers’ 14 head coach in franchise history immediately through the end of the season. “The play of the team didn’t reflect what we wanted to do at the beginning of the season.”
“There was definitely a philosophical divide.”
Despite the success, there appears to have been other things brewing under the surface between the Panthers and the coach they hoped would provide stability for a previously volatile team and position. Over the off-season, the Panthers made a number of moves which included trading Erik Gudbranson, a physical, but overpaid defensive defenseman, to the Vancouver Canucks for a young forward with top-6 potential in Jared McCann, a second round draft pick which eventually netted goal-scoring prospect Adam Mascherin, and a 4th-rounder which was used to select Jonathan Ang.
It was move Gallant was reportedly not happy about, and things didn’t get any better when Dmitry Kulikov was moved or Logan Shaw, who was sent to the Ducks just a few weeks ago for the more skilled and less gritty Michael Sgarbossa. Shaw was a favorite of Gallant, but his style of play and, to a lesser extent, his analytical profile, didn’t match what the Panthers’ front office was was interesting in keeping on the roster which they want to build around speed and skill.
Gallant, however, wasn’t a big proponent of analytics, or at least not as big of one as those running the organization. This apparent dislike for the new movement towards the use of analytics in the NHL wasn’t anything new for Gallant who’s continuous healthy-scratching of former Panther Sean Bergenheim two seasons ago led to him being subsequently traded for a 3rd-round pick last February.
“One of our players was our top analytics guy and I couldn’t stand watching him on the ice,” said Gallant last year when talking about analytics in an interview. He didn’t specifically name Bergenheim, but he was known around the league as an “analytics darling” and was in and out of the lineup often for little reason. “He was our top analytics player and I didn’t like the way he played one bit.”
In a conference call on Monday afternoon, no one from the Panthers’ brass offered a specific reason or reasons behind the firing – and rightfully so – other than to say that there was a “philosophical divide” between them and Gallant.
Tom Rowe did suggest that Gallant not embracing analytics was a factor in the decision to fire him.
“It was definitely part of it,” said Rowe, “but I wouldn’t say that Gerard was totally against what we were doing. I know the hockey world looks at us as a straight analytics-type team but it’s a part of what we do. Really, analytics, it’s not a revolutionary thing. It’s shot attempts on the net, it’s shots against, you add up the differentials and you make some adjustments off that.”
“The analytics are wonderful because sometimes your naked eye misses something and it helps you review your video differently. It’s a part, it’s not the whole piece that we use it for, but we do think it’s a tool that can help us analyze our play and analyze the opposition’s play as well.”
Not only was there a divide when it came to analytics, but there was apparently one with regard to what types of players should be on the roster. Gallant told the Sun-Sentinel over the weekend after the Panthers’ 3-1 loss to the Flyers expressed a subliminal desire to have tougher and bigger players to match against more physical opponents.
“The Simmonds situation and then the Gudas hit on Trocheck, you’d like a response on that,” said Gallant. “But when you don’t have personnel to put out there for that it shows.”
Gallant went on to tell the Miami Herald that the well-known correlation between the record on Thanksgiving Day and whether or not a team makes the playoffs is, “just another analytics number.” Then add in the fact that the Panthers are 2 for their last 27 power play opportunities, have blown numerous leads, see the 4th line get overused in late situations down a goal or two and at the tail end of power plays, among other things, and suddenly it doesn’t seem as surprising that Gallant was let go.
“We were probably going to see what happened after the road trip, but after we collapsed in the 2nd period [against Carolina], it came to a head a lot quicker,” said Rowe regarding the decision.
As you can imagine, the optics of the firing were pretty bad all throughout social media and the hockey world as media analysts, Panthers fans, and opposing fans chimed in to show their disapproval. Things didn’t get any better as images emerged of Gallant and Kelly waiting outside of PNC Arena for a cab, and many were quick to assume that the Panthers had left them to fend for themselves. In reality, the team had called for a car to pick the two former coaches up, but they got their own cab before it could show up. The Panthers also reportedly offered to cover the costs of the cab.
Most notably, former NHL GM Doug MacLean sent out several tweets on Sunday night to show his disapproval of the firings, and he even went as far as to sarcastically call Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu a “hockey expert.” What MacLean apparently didn’t remember is that he too fired Gallant as head coach of the Blue Jackets back in 2006 when he was the team’s GM.
Cifu’s response to MacLean was as follows:
MacLean responded by thanking Cifu “for the kind words,” not realizing that he had just been “roasted,” as they say.
When it comes to Tom Rowe, he says he plans to talk to the Panthers leadership group, which one would assume includes Derek MacKenzie, Jussi Jokinen, and Aaron Ekblad (the captains) along with other veterans like Shawn Thornton and Roberto Luongo, about what will happen next.
He also says he will talk to the team as a whole prior to Tuesday’s game about a new style of defensive coverage that he wants to begin to implement, and it’s one that involves more area coverage rather than man-to-man, something which may help alleviate “issues” caused by the Panthers’ perceived “softness,” if you will.
The Panthers have been beating themselves in their own zone, and that’s what’s caused most of the losses this season, not the lack of size like many would like to believe. Overall, Rowe wants to play a more up-tempo game where the team is attacking the offensive zone and pressuring the puck in all 3 zones, a style the Panthers have been missing this season aside from a few periods.
Tom Rowe has experience behind the bench in the KHL, where he led the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv to a 34-18-0 record in his first season with the team, as well as time with the Lowell Lock Monsters and Albany River Rats of the AHL. A year ago, Rowe was the head coach of the Panthers’ AHL affiliate – which was the Portland Pirates at the time – before being named associate GM of the Panthers and then GM in January. He also played in 357 games in the NHL where he was the first American to score 30 goals in a season, a feat he reached with the Washington Capitals during the 1978-79 season.
He stated today that he will be focusing solely on the coaching duties while seeking input from around the front office when it comes to the lineup, systems, and other day-to-day decisions. This is very intriguing, and considering he is on board with the vision of the front office, it could make for games that are coached more strongly. Steve Werier and Eric Joyce will remain the assistant general managers, while the rest of the hockey ops department will also stay the same.
Rowe’s first NHL game behind the bench and first test as head coach will come on Tuesday as the Panthers face the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:30 PM.