Inside the NHL
NHL head coaches Bruce Cassidy, Travis Green, Todd Reirden, Dave Tippett and Jon Cooper had best watch their backs.
All had teams at or near the top of division standings by this week’s NHL All-Star break. Which can only mean they might be NHL Seattle coaching candidates a year from now once pink-slipped by their respective squads.
What else to expect after the most unpredictable coaching carousel to ever hit an NHL season? Of seven coaching departures thus far in 2019-20 – punctuated by the Vegas Golden Knights dismissing Gerard Gallant last week – only one didn’t make the playoffs last season.
And that coach, John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils, has already been rehired. So has Peter DeBoer, fired by San Jose last month and immediately brought in by Vegas to replace Gallant.
”I think that might be the first time two guys have been fired in the same season and hired in the same season,” NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis told me the day Gallant was fired. “They make good money but it’s a tough profession.”
Francis wouldn’t comment on Gallant’s firing – other than saying he found it “a little surprising” — or on his potential for coming here, given he remains under contract to the Knights.
But it would be shocking if NHL Seattle didn’t make a play for Gallant this summer, well ahead of its time frame for landing a coach by spring 2021. In recent months, senior NHL Seattle officials had confided the future coach could be somebody like Gallant was prior to Vegas taking him on.
Back then, Gallant wasn’t on any star candidates’ list. He’d had parts of three unremarkable seasons coaching Columbus and then two good ones in Florida – winning a division title in 2015-16 – only to be canned 22 games into the ensuing campaign by a new general manager.
But Vegas liked Gallant’s ability to relate to Florida’s players both young and old and get them to quickly buy into a system. Expansion teams must combine players from widely differing systems and Gallant delivered, taking the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final their first season and reaching the quarterfinals last year.
They also liked his perseverance as a player through 615 career games in the 1980s and 1990s as a rugged winger for the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning who could both score goals and trade punches. They figured it would help him relate to the type of castoff players selected in an expansion draft.
One of Gallant’s teammates in Detroit had been Steve Yzerman, who has the ear of former boss and current NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke and has no doubt extolled some of Gallant’s interpersonal strengths.
Thus, it was always a Gallant prototype NHL Seattle figured it would try to hire if no absolute star candidate emerged.
Only thing is, NHL Seattle no longer needs to find a future Gallant. Now, it can have the real deal. And a coach who ran a puck-possession system in Vegas who should meld with NHL Seattle’s analytics approach.
But they’ll need to move quickly, given the speed with which coaches are being fired and rehired. Gallant barely sat four months between his Florida firing and Vegas hiring and may not be sidelined much longer this time.
Among potential suitors are the Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and the Red Wings under GM Yzerman.
For NHL Seattle, the coaches who’ve become available exceeds anything imagined when adopting their current wait-and-see approach. Mike Babcock getting fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs piqued their interest and seemed the best outcome possible until subsequent stories of his verbally and psychologically tormenting players made him too toxic for a first-year team to gamble on.
Ditto for onetime Francis hire Bill Peters, who guided the Calgary Flames to the top Western Conference record last season only to resign in November amid allegations of racist remarks and physical abuse toward players.
The third coach fired after a stellar record last season was Jim Montgomery of the Stars, who has since said he’s seeking treatment for alcohol abuse.
But others let go? Mostly head-scratchers and victims of increasingly high expectations in a 31-team league where only one champion gets crowned. All are coaches NHL Seattle would undoubtedly have interest in.
DeBoer seemed an A-list candidate when the Sharks fired him after four playoff seasons. But the Knights quickly took him off the board.
There’s also Peter Laviolette, who once coached NHL Seattle GM Francis and was fired by Nashville last month after making the Final in 2017 and notching consecutive division titles after that. Laviolette has coached two other teams to the Final, winning with Carolina in 2006.
But among potential candidates, only Gallant has done this expansion thing. And very well.
His firing caught much of the league — and Gallant himself — off guard, with theories abounding but none really explaining it. They range from new Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon being a former junior coach with exacting bench standards, to the team being infatuated with DeBoer, to owner Bill Foley wanting a Stanley Cup over all else.
In building their franchise, NHL Seattle has closely observed the Knights and had conversations with their management. There isn’t much they don’t already know about Gallant.
And if he’s still around by summer, they will likely try to snag him.
If not? Well, NHL Seattle can always wait around for next winter. By then, in this increasingly impatient league, Cassidy, Green, Cooper or some other coach currently positioning for a Stanley Cup run is bound to have been sent packing.