Gerard Gallant deserved better than to be literally kicked to the curb by the Florida Panthers late last month, but he had to have seen it coming.
The popular, gentlemanly head coach would have given his notice in the summer had he not still had three years remaining on his contract. He gladly would have taken a pink slip so he could begin a new chapter, away from the new Panthers hierarchy he never clicked with.
Last season, the Summerside, P.E.I., native guided the club to a 12-point improvement in his second season behind the bench, but the Panthers were upset by John Tavares and the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A front-office shakeup ensued. General manager Dale Tallon was pushed upstairs and given the title of president of hockey operations. Respected hockey men like assistant GM Mike Santos, director of player personnel Scott Luce and assistant coach John Madden were sacked. The Panthers even dismissed a couple of equipment managers.
Tom Rowe was named the new general manager. Tallon had brought him into the organization to coach the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, first in San Antonio and then in Portland, Maine.
When Rowe had been promoted to assistant GM on New Year’s Day, eyebrows were raised even though he was loyal to Tallon and the GM received a contract extension at the same time.
The move signaled a change in philosophy for Panthers owner Vincent Viola. He wanted to shift from the old-school ways of Gallant and Tallon, who in his previous GM gig had built the Chicago Blackhawks into a championship club, to one based on analytics.
Two key Viola executives, Eric Joyce and Steve Werier, were given prominent roles in hockey operations.
Meanwhile, Rowe altered the roster in the off-season. He traded veteran defenceman Erik Gudbranson and a draft pick to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Jared McCann (now in the AHL) and two picks. Dmitry Kulikov and a pick went to the Buffalo Sabres for Mark Pysyk and a pair of draft choices.
The overhaul continued for Rowe in the free-agent market. He signed Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, James Reimer, Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault.
But Gallant and the Panthers began the season with important players Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau on the sidelines with injuries. Bjugstad missed the first 19 games with a broken hand. Huberdeau has yet to play after his left ankle was cut by an opponent’s skate late in the pre-season.
So after a middling 11-10-1 start, Gallant was fired following a 3-2 loss on the road to the Carolina Hurricanes. Photos of him and trusty assistant Mike Kelly loading their luggage into a taxi curbside outside of the arena were posted on news websites and social media for all to see.
Rowe was then named head coach for the remainder of the season, with his assistant GMs taking over many of his executive duties.
A curious hockey life
In his first job as an NHL head coach, Rowe has steered Florida to an unimpressive 2-2-3 record so far. The Panthers were two points out of a playoff spot when Gallant was dismissed three Sundays ago and remain two points out of playoff spot.
It will be interesting to see if Rowe and his analytics team make a difference.
The GM has lived a curious hockey life. He hails from the Boston area but played junior for the London Knights. He became the first United States-born player to reach the 30-goal mark when he scored 31 times for the 1978-79 Washington Capitals.
A few seasons later, he split time with the Detroit Red Wings and their AHL team in Adirondack, N.Y. He became friends with a teammate, Jim Rutherford.
When Rutherford ran the Carolina Hurricanes, he hired Rowe to coach his AHL affiliate. Rowe has his name on the Stanley Cup after developing the likes of Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward — two key players in Carolina’s 2005-06 championship run.
Rowe eventually moved on and was entrusted with the role of rebuilding the Russian team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
This was the team beset by tragedy when its chartered jet crashed after takeoff on Sept. 7, 2011. Thirty-seven players and coaches perished, including head coach Brad McCrimmon and former NHLers Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev.
Rowe didn’t make it past his second season in Russia.
Now the hockey world will be watching to see whether the numbers add up for Rowe and his analytics-leaning staff.