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Caps Coach Candidates: Gerard Gallant

Taking a look at potential options to fill the Caps’ coaching vacancy, starting with a name on a lot of people’s minds.

Philadelphia Flyers v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Caps and Todd Reirden having parted ways, the search is on for the next bench boss - so we’re taking a look at some of the possible candidates, what they bring to the table, and where they might come up short. First up? The man the Caps ousted in the Stanley Cup Final, Gerard Gallant.

Early Career

Gerard Gallant is a hockey lifer. The Prince Edward Island native grew up near his town’s ice rink, worked his way through the Canadian development system over the years, and was eventually a sixth round pick in the 1981 Entry Draft (107th overall, by the Detroit Red Wings). He cobbled together a solid NHL career with a reputation for toughness to go along with some offensive punch, playing in 615 regular season games for the Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning, and 58 playoff games, all with Detroit.

Gallant began his coaching career shortly thereafter, starting in 1995-96 with the Summerside Capitals of the Maritime Junior Hockey League. Six seasons later, he was in the NHL as an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Coaching Background

Gallant has had three NHL head coaching stops, all of which ended in similar fashion. However, the records he compiled at those three stops differ in quality, as shown here:

In Columbus, Gallant suffered the burden of a still-young franchise in its fourth season when he took over for Doug MacLean in midseason in 2003-04. He did have high-end goal scoring talent in Rick Nash (who won the Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer in Gallant’s first season), but as one might expect, given the state of franchise development, not a lot more. The numbers his Blue Jackets put together were almost universally bottom-ten ranking, with the exception of the penalty kill, ranked 13th in the league over the 142 games he coached in Columbus.

After stints as an assistant with the Islanders and Canadiens, Gallant landed the top job in Florida, where he had a different problem to address. Since appearing in the Stanley Cup final in 1996, in only the third year of the team’s existence, the Panthers reached the postseason only three times in 17 seasons before he took over, failing to win a single series along the way. He was successful, to a point. His points percentage was, and remains the best by any of the 16 coaches in Panther history, but he managed to deliver a playoff berth only in 2015-2016, where he lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the first round. He would be relieved 22 games into the next season.

That Gallant is high on anyone’s list of coaches to fill a vacancy is largely a product of his two-plus seasons as the first coach in Vegas Golden Knights history, including his 2018 Jack Adams Trophy, awarded to the League’s best coach. But Gallant probably isn’t a silver bullet. True, he guided the Golden Knights to a 51-win inaugural season (most of any expansion team in NHL history) and a Stanley Cup berth, but his overall record with Vegas is barely top-ten in most statistical categories - good, not necessarily great, and no obvious area of strength... except maybe one: Gallant’s Golden Knights had a 53.4 score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five Corsi-For percentage, second-best in the League (Carolina) during his tenure.

Before and After

So let’s look at his career in context: how did each team do before Gallant’s arrival and after?

Gallant has had three stops, each of which might be said to reflect a different developmental situation for the team he coached – a still-new, skill-deficient franchise in Columbus, a team with a long history of mediocrity after early success in Florida, and a brand spanking new franchise engineered from the start to make it competitive in Vegas.

In none of the three did there seem to be a magical “Gallant Effect” resulting in large improvements over his immediate predecessor(s). In Columbus, there was little change in most of the numbers from his predecessors (and the defense got substantially worse); the offense dropped under his successor, Ken Hitchcock, but (unsurprisingly) the defense improved.

The story improved slightly when Gallant took his talents to South Florida. The Panthers posted a respectable 38-29-15 record in his first season, which he followed up with a 47-win campaign - the most regular-season wins in Panthers history. He did it on both sides of the puck, improving offense and defense over his immediate predecessors, Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek. When he was relieved in the 2016-17 season, Tom Rowe and Bob Boughner improved offense and special teams, but defense was a problem (not helped by the Panthers dressing four different goalies the season after he left).

Obviously in Vegas the tale was a bit different, as Gallant was taking over a brand new squad. Upon his departure, however, Pete DeBoer took over as head coach and helped the team find a new offensive gear - to the tune of about a third of a goal per game (without giving up anything on the defensive end). Small sample sizes and all, but DeBoer’s Golden Knights went 15-5-2 leading up to the pause and positioned Vegas as a favorite to come out of the west once more.

Caps Connection

There is a significant connection to look at here, or at least it might be thought so in the eyes of Caps fans. Gerard Gallant and Caps general manager Brian MacLellan were teammates on the 1991-1992 Detroit Red Wings squad.

That happened to be the last season of a ten-year career for MacLellan (he went 1-5-6, plus-4, in 23 games with the Wings, while Gallant was in his eighth NHL season, going 14-22-36, plus-16, in 69 games, plus another two goals and four points in 11 postseason games).

Intangibles

If teams take on the personality of their coach, the Caps would be getting in Gerard Gallant a coach who has spent a lifetime in the sport and who displays traits that emphasize in equal measure skill and grit. Gallant might be categorized as an “inspirational” coach in these respects, reflected in comments by Mike Rupp, an NHL analyst and former player who spent part of one season under Gallant when he played for Columbus.

As Rupp put it:

The players play for him, they go through a wall for him, he motivates players, but there is accountability through and through. He doesn’t care what name’s on the back of your sweater, you’re going to be responsible for the way you play.

Pros:

  • Experience in a variety of settings
  • Demonstrated an affinity for an up-tempo style in Las Vegas
  • Has taken a club to a Stanley Cup final under extraordinary circumstances
  • Is alternately described as “old school” and a “players’ coach”
  • Described as intense, yet patient and calm
  • Brings an identity (hard forecheck, emphasis on transition) that appeared absent at times with the Caps

Cons:

  • Pattern of terminations raises questions of how relationships develop with the organization (management and/or players); some reasons seem clearer than others
  • Might be an ill fit at first for a club not known for a “speed” dimension
  • Has not had particularly successful power play squads, although numbers improved at each stop
  • Not the biggest fan of analytics
  • Just one post-season in which he had a series win

The Bottom Line:

There’s a reason Gallant is widely viewed as the front-runner for the Caps’ vacancy: he’s had increasingly better results at each stop and checks a lot of the Caps’ boxes (it’s unclear what sort of salary asks he might have, but maybe that matters less with this hire than previous ones). Gerard Gallant would be a somewhat “safe” pick, and one that would be hard to fault. For a Caps team that seemed to largely sleepwalk through the schedule after New Year’s Day, it might be what the Caps need to keep their hopes for a second Stanley Cup alive.