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Gerard Gallant stood outside Raleigh’s PNC Arena on Sunday night, suitcase in-hand, waiting for a taxi after being unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Florida Panthers.
An hour earlier, Gallant was behind the bench of a 3-2 loss. His Panthers entered the night winners of five of their last seven games.
Five months ago, Gallant was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year after leading Florida to a franchise-best 103-point season and just their second division title in 23 years.
His run under the Panthers’ new analytics-based regime lasted just 22 games.
Gallant became the NHL’s first coaching casualty of the season when he was fired on Sunday night in rather bizarre fashion. Coaching changes happen all the time, but rarely so publicly, with Gallant awaiting his own transportation with reporters and cameras gathering around him while the Panthers left for Chicago.
“I was let go,” Gallant told reporters.
Panthers GM Tom Rowe will reportedly take over as interim head coach – the team’s fourth head coach since 2013-14. Rowe, 60, has never been an NHL head coach.
The Panthers landed in Chicago before midnight on Sunday but did not make any comment on the changes. Assistant coach Mike Kelly was also fired.
Under Gallant, the Panthers were 11-10-1 this year and just two points back of a wild card position, despite missing three of their top nine forwards (Jonathan Huberdeau, Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad) for the bulk of the young season. Jokinen and Huberdeau were the team’s second and third leading scorers last season. Florida had beaten two of the game’s best teams, the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, on the road in the last 10 days.
Yet, as strange as Sunday’s scene was, the sense is the tension between Gallant and Florida’s front office had been bubbling under the surface for some time.
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Gallant, 53, represented the “old school” hockey mentality from which the Panthers have been so clearly trying to distance themselves. He was brought on by then-GM Dale Tallon in 2014. Despite two of the most successful seasons in team history, Tallon was pushed up to president of hockey operations last May, paving the way for Rowe to take over as GM.
Rowe headlined a tumultuous spring front office shakeup which included a “new age” approach led by assistant GMs Eric Joyce and Steve Werier, who were hired by new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu. United States Military Academy connections run deep between Viola and Joyce – a former Army hockey player and military captain. Joyce, Werier and Brian McDonald, the team’s director of analytics, are using analytics as the primary driver of hockey decisions with the support of ownership.
Apparently, the writing was on the wall for Gallant with the new regime. He received a two-year contract extension through 2018-19, but quipped he wouldn’t last that long.
“There’s no guarantee I’ll be here,” Gallant told reporters. “But at least I have the contract.”
Viola’s new Panthers front office has thrived on being comfortably uncomfortable, questioning the status-quo, which is how he made his billions on Wall Street.
“That’s one of the things Vinnie encourages more than anything,” Joyce told the Globe and Mail this month. “He calls it positive friction. He doesn’t want people to sit around and hold hands at the Florida Panthers.”
That “positive friction” obviously wasn’t all that positive for Gallant. The new and old schools were clashing. He held the team together through a rough spell of injuries, and the fact that Florida had replaced four of its top six defencemen from last season.
Out were Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov, Eric Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell. In were Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Mike Matheson and Mark Pysyk.
The move will seemingly be an unpopular one within Florida’s dressing room. Gallant was known as a well-liked and well-respect coach who took care of his players.