A .500 straight-up record through the first quarter of the season doesn’t seem to be what the Florida Panthers‘ management had in mind for the start of their 2016/17 season. Florida fired head coach Gerard Gallant on Sunday and replaced him with Tom Rowe. According to a Monday article at the Panthers’ home page: “Rowe replaces Gerard Gallant, who was relieved of his duties yesterday. Assistant coach Mike Kelly was also relieved of his duties.” The response to Florida’s start seems a tad rash given that Gallant lead the team to a division title last season and given that the start to the season certainly wasn’t egregious.
What makes the firing a little more puzzling is that the Panthers had not been playing poorly lately. They did lose on Sunday to Carolina, but otherwise, the Panthers were 3-2 in their last five. During that stretch, they beat the Ottawa Senators, a team that has been surprisingly effective so far this season. Furthermore, Florida beat the New York Rangers on November 20th, one of the top teams in the NHL in terms of points so far this season.
Perhaps the best way to understand the firing of Gallant is simply in terms of failed expectations: last year Florida won the division and mediocrity certainly isn’t a good follow up to that. Furthermore, the Panthers added both Jason Demers and James Reimer in the off-season and those acquisitions had to raise the bar in Florida. I guess management for the Panthers must have been thinking something like 15 wins through 22 games and 11 wins fell short enough of that for them to sack their coach.
Florida Panthers’ Chairman, Owner, and Governor Vincent J. Viola is cited at the Panthers’ home page: “In seeking to earn a second consecutive playoff berth and bring a Stanley Cup to South Florida, we believe that new leadership is required immediately.”
Viola must have been projecting pretty bad numbers going forward for Gallant and, for some reason, the team owner sees 60-year old Tom Rowe as the answer in what will be his first gig as an NHL head coach. For the last two seasons, Rowe had head coaching gigs in the AHL where he went 62-35 (Rowe’s stats from hockeydb.com). Furthermore, Rowe posted a .654 winning percentage as a head coach in the KHL, Russia’s top hockey league and second-most prestigious league worldwide. Perhaps Viola is looking at those numbers and seeing some potential, but I wonder if the best answer was just to stick with Gallant over the long term. After all, last season Florida didn’t play front-to-back top-level hockey, but rather they pounced on the division midseason and Gallant almost won coach of the year.
As for reactions to the firing, TSN’s Frank Seravalli commented on the matter in an early-morning article on Monday: “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.” Hockey philosophy debate seems to be central to that “tension.” Meanwhile, Bob McKenzie of TSN suggested that the move won’t be popular with Florida players in a tweet from his verified account: “Not that it ultimately matters in terms of decision, but safe to say FLA players largely disappointed/unhappy at Gallant being fired.”
I see Viola as taking a major risk here. Rowe isn’t proven as the lead man behind an NHL bench, and the front-line players don’t seem to like the change. I actually see Florida as worse off following this move and less likely to make the playoffs now. That’s the opposite of what Viola seems to expect.