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The End of a (Short, Sweet) Hockey Era

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AP Photo/John Locher

Vegas Golden Knights Head Coach Gerard Gallant at an NHL media event for the Stanley Cup in May 2018.

Well, that was a gut-punch: Eighteen months after orchestrating a thrilling Stanley Cup final run and receiving a Jack Adams Coach of the Year award, Vegas Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant was fired yesterday.

In any other hockey city, this might not be such a big deal. But it’s a big deal here. What makes Gallant’s firing feel like such a gut-punch is unique to Las Vegas, a city that’s new to the kind of feverish team spirit that only pro sports can inspire.

The Vegas Golden Knights is our first-ever major league sports team — and thousands of people in the valley who’d never paid much attention to sports caught the fever when the Knights came to town. Many of them fell in love with the team, the coaches, and the whole Golden Knights story long before they actually fell in love with hockey itself. There’s a level of emotional attachment here you don’t see in other cities where the ever-revolving coach carousel is a fact of life.

Gallant’s firing is not just a surprise to fans. While the team has underperformed so far this season given the level of talent (and high-dollar contracts), the news of Gallant’s firing sent shock waves across the league. After all, a lifetime coaching record in the NHL of 270-216-51 with three different teams ranks him among some of the best in the sport. Add to that the fact Gallant is one of the most respected and admired coaches among the players he's led. In anonymous player polls on platforms such as The Athletic sports news app, Gallant is mentioned time and again as the coach they want to play for.

What set Gallant apart was a perhaps unusual practice of his: Letting his players make mistakes without the fear of getting benched or yelled at. Gallant's former career in the league as a high-level player himself developed his instinct for knowing what players want and need in order to be successful. He knew that no player was perfect. He knew they would blunder occasionally. As long as they playedAP Photo/John Locher hard once they stepped on the ice, they were given ample opportunity to right their wrongs, improve, and help the team win. His coaching style allowed the players to breathe easy, play loosely and confidently, and above all, just play hockey. For example, defenseman Nate Schmidt once made a turnover that led to an odd man rush the other way. In a post-game interview, Schmidt said Gallant gave him an earful for the blunder. But he didn’t get to sulk for long, as the Knights got a power play shortly afterwards and Gallant put Schmidt right back on the ice. He made a perfect pass that set up a goal. Trusting his players even after big miscues is a major reason players love playing for Gallant. And it’s something many coaches don’t do.

But what makes the team happy doesn’t necessarily make the front office happy. From there, Gallant’s let-them-play philosophy could look like a lack of accountability for poor performance that might lead to complacency creeping into players’ psyches. Kelly McCrimmon, the Golden Knights general manager, held an ad hoc press conference in Ottawa just a few hours after the news of the firing broke. According to McCrimmon, the decision to let Gallant go was 100 percent performance-based. McCrimmon said, “Our team is capable of more than we have demonstrated this season.”

At the time of Gallant’s firing, the Golden Knights were in 5th place in the Pacific division and 18th in the NHL. But that doesn’t tell the entire story. In a lot of the advanced metrics — e.g., expected goals, scoring chances — VGK ranks easily in the top five. The disjunction between their weak league showing and their strong metrics suggests a team that’s had an unlucky season so far — and that a natural progression to the mean is statistically inevitable. In other words, if they keep playing the same way, their record should only improve in the second half of the season. But if that’s what Gallant tried to sell the front office, they didn’t buy it.

AP Photo/Chris SewardThe VGK front office wasted no time hiring a replacement — Peter Deboer (right), formerly the head coach of the San Jose Sharks. (Ironically, Deboer was let go by that organization on December 11, 2019 for much the same reason Gallant was.)

How will Deboer be different? In many ways. Deboer has always been a defensive-minded bench boss, whereas Gallant was a coach who preached consistency and conditioning over everything else. Deboer found success in San Jose boasting one of the best defenses in the league year in and year out. He never finished the season worse than third in the standings, and his team made the Stanley Cup final in 2016.  His resume pretty much says it all.

Defense is one of the things the Golden Knights must get better at, and likely a reason for the hire. Deboer likes his defensemen to leave no room between them and offensive players. The more space the defense gives, the more likely the opposing player with the puck will find an open man and give his team a chance to score. This is something the Golden Knights did not do well under Gallant. It will also be worth watching what Deboer does with the forwards. The Golden Knights’ third line, regardless of who’s played on it, has put up awful numbers so far this season. Don’t be surprised to see a remarkably different lineup take shape as Deboer gets to know his team.

What does all this mean for the Golden Knights 2020 playoff prospects? Hopefully nothing. The personnel remains intact. This is the same roster that, prior to the season beginning, had many pundits pencil in the Golden Knights for an extended playoff run based on talent alone. And it’s worth remembering that just because players love their coach, it doesn’t mean there’s some unique, magical bond between them that can never be reproduced. Players are not going to allow the business of the sport deny them the ultimate prize. In no way will Gallant’s departure signal a major drop in performance. The players on the roster are too good and have too much pride to allow that to happen.

This is the end of a very memorable era, but there’s no going back now. The Golden Knights front office will now be under a microscope as fans decide whether this was the right move, or a wrong one made in haste. This is the same front office that evaluated the talent and then chose a group of castoffs nobody wanted. The same front office that assembled a team that proved the world wrong and wound up playing for a Stanley Cup in its inaugural year. If Gallant’s firing was a mistake, karma will come knocking and there’ll be more firings to follow. However, if this was the right choice, there will be a victory parade down the Strip sometime in June. The parade won’t soon be forgotten, but this decision will.

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