The Vegas Golden Knights have fired Gerard Gallant and hired former San Jose coach Peter DeBoer, whom the San Jose Sharks fired last month. The Knights also fired assistant Mike Kelly.
The move comes with the team in the mix for a playoff spot, but that factor did not prevent a midseason move. Let’s explore how the switch could impact on-ice strategy, what the team does at the deadline and more. But first, let’s examine the timing of the decision.
The Golden Knights are in the playoff mix. Why fire Gallant now?
The results aren’t there for a team whose owner, on an annual basis, says he expects to win the Stanley Cup. The Knights have been underwhelming in the standings this season with a record of 24-19-6 in 49 games. Their .551 points percentage ranks them ninth in the conference. The returns were diminishing: They were third (.665) in their inaugural season of 2017-18 and seventh (.567) last season, although injuries played a role there. Vegas had returned to the top of the Pacific Division recently, and are only three points out of first, but are mired in a four-game losing streak.
True, the Knights are tied in points with the Winnipeg Jets for the final wild-card spot. But clearly management thinks they can and should be better, and that DeBoer is the coach to get that out of them.
Wait, didn’t Gallant just win the Jack Adams a couple years ago?
That he did, for taking an expansion draft of players, somehow getting them to pass the chemistry test and turning them into a regular season juggernaut who went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Washington Capitals. It was, and will remain, one of the most legendary first-season runs for a new team, and Gallant deserves multitudes of credit for that — especially after the insulting way his tenure in Florida ended, with a fired coach photographed waiting for a taxi cab to whisk himself and his office belongings away.
But here’s the problem for Gallant: He’s not the only coach in the organization. Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon was the head coach of the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings from 2004-2016, and a good one at that. Looking around the NHL, there aren’t many general managers with that kind of coaching résumé. McCrimmon said “our team is capable of more than we have demonstrated this season.” I think that’s the coach talking.
According to a source, this was a decision McCrimmon had to agree with and facilitate — he wouldn’t have taken the promotion to Golden Knights general manager last season if he’d be forced to make decisions with which he disagrees.
“As a manager, sometimes you have a feeling that something isn’t what it needed to be. Sometimes you feel a change is needed,” said McCrimmon.
Was there one ultimate failing for Gallant, or was it a combination of factors?
A combination of factors, some of them out of his hands.
Their 5-on-5 play has been underwhelming, if a bit unlucky. While their puck possession remains solid (third in the league in Corsi for percentage, at 53.59 percent of shot attempts), they’re not taking over games offensively. They’re first by a wide margin in expected goals at 5-on-5 — weighed for shot quality — at 106.93, but are 12th in actual goals (98). They have the No. 24 shooting percentage, at 7.5 percent. They’re second in the NHL in scoring chances percentage (55.38) but 22nd in goals scored percentage (48.51). Overall, the Knights are 17th in the NHL in goals per game (3.02) with a system that’s creating chances but without results.
They’re not getting great goaltending either, with a team save percentage of .900 (19th). Marc-Andre Fleury has been very ordinary, with a minus-2.43 goals saved above average. Backup Malcolm Subban has been worse, with a minus-4.69.
But his management also failed him a bit. The Knights have needed help on their blue line for the last two seasons, and that hurt their ability to generate offense at even strength.
Frankly, the Knights just haven’t looked like the Knights. They’re getting outscored in the first period for the first time under Gallant (minus-4), a sign of unpreparedness and inconsistency. They’re a middling 14-10-3 at home, where they used to be unbeatable. Wither the Vegas Flu?
So, Peter DeBoer. He looks quite familiar to Golden Knights fans.
Yes, in the sense that this is like the Justice League hiring Lex Luthor as head coach.
The rivalry between the Knights and the Sharks, DeBoer’s former team, had quickly become one of the NHL’s most intense feuds, fueled by a first-round loss by Vegas last postseason in a Game 7 that saw the Sharks get the benefit of a bad penalty call, and rally from a 3-0 deficit with four third-period power-play goals before winning in overtime. The rivalry even spilled over to the coaches, as DeBoer accused Gallant of trash-talking the Sharks from the bench and Gallant responded by calling him a “clown.”
But DeBoer’s team won, and then won another round and made it the conference final last season before losing to the St. Louis Blues. His Sharks team lost some key contributors to free agency last summer, and was a dud this season. He was fired by the Sharks when they had a 15-16-2 record on Dec. 11. They’ve gone 6-7-2 since.
DeBoer has a career NHL coaching record of 415-329-111 with the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils and Sharks. He led the latter two teams to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost both times. While not exactly popular among Knights fans — at least not yet — he’s considered one of the top coaches in the NHL among his peers.
Will DeBoer’s approach be any different than Gallant?
Under DeBoer, the Sharks were similar to the Knights in the sense that they liked to possess the puck, roll their lines and come at you in waves offensively. He didn’t have the personnel to do that any longer in San Jose, but with the forward group in Vegas, he’s got a new sandbox in which to play. DeBoer’s Sharks teams were better at suppressing shots than Gallant’s teams in Vegas, although the wheels came off for San Jose defensively this season, as he attempted to play the same style with a diminished roster. As can happen with all coaches, DeBoer’s act eventually wore thin with his players, but for a while he seemed to understand the Sharks better than longtime coach Todd McLellan had.
“I think he’s always been a coach that has a lot of respect from his players, relates well to his players,” said McCrimmon.
Unlike some other coaches, they hear him immediately when he arrives: Florida had a 93-point season in his first season in the NHL, and the Devils and Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final in his first campaign with both of those teams.
If the theory is that Gallant got as much as he can out of the Knights, and that someone else needed to take them to the next level, DeBoer fits the bill.
Should we expect any trades in the short term? Will the Golden Knights be a player at the trade deadline?
Yes. The Knights are expected to have around $2 million in cap space at the deadline, per Cap Friendly. There’s absolutely one place to target: The blue line.
Outside of Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt, no Vegas defenseman has more than 10 points. That’s just getting it done in the NHL in 2019-20. The Knights lack that last piece of championship DNA that most Stanley Cup winners have: a franchise-level defenseman. That’s probably not arriving at the trade deadline, but help on defense absolutely needs to arrive.
What’s next for Gerard Gallant?
We’ll, we’ve only had seven coaching changes, and two of the guys that were fired are now coaching other teams within the same season, so who knows? Maybe Gallant is back in a job by the time you finish reading this.
In the short term, the NHL is actually going to have to make a decision on Gallant because he’s scheduled to coach the Pacific Division in the All-Star Game. (Heck, maybe he still wants to do it for that all expenses paid trip to St. Louis.) The NHL names the coaches of the top teams in each division at the midpoint of the season (Jan. 2) to the All-Star Game. The NHL uses points percentage as the determining factor, so while Arizona was second in the Pacific to Vegas, Vancouver had the better points percentage, so perhaps Travis Green gets the call.
In the long term, there’s one very intriguing landing spot for him: The Detroit Red Wings. This will mark Jeff Blashill’s fifth season with the team and fourth straight outside the playoffs. Gallant played nine seasons in Detroit, and was a teammate of current Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman.
Of course, there’s another intriguing possibility: Seattle. Why wouldn’t the NHL’s newest expansion team hire a coach with Gallant’s kind of unique experience, and who took the league’s last expansion team to the Cup Final in Year 1?
Grade the decision (and the timing).
I’ll give it a B+. Gallant was a victim of a lot of different factors: Underwhelming performances from veteran players like Fleury, Schmidt and Jonathan Marchessault; bad puck luck, given their shooting percentage at 5-on-5; and having set the bar ridiculously high in his first season. Yet the Knights were right in the playoff race, three points out of first place. There were signs of trouble, but there was also a lot of goodwill Gallant had built up, in theory.
So even though the Knights have mulled this over, this was still a bit of a knee-jerk move … until you understand the coach they hired. DeBoer is one of the best, a coach that gets results, and is without question someone that could get more out of some of the players that have plateaued or declined this season.
And hey, let’s not forget the Cup-shaped elephant in the room: Two of the last four Stanley Cup winners have fired their coaches in season.