The Pittsburgh Penguins were out of the playoffs when they fired their coach early on last season.
The Panthers can only hope to replicate what resulted for the now-defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
Coaching changes can be cause for celebration and fresh hope.
Monday did not feel that way at all after the Panthers fired coach Gerard Gallant 22 games into the 2016-17 season following Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the host Carolina Hurricanes.
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General manager Tom Rowe will replace Gallant behind the Florida bench and was there to deliver the bad news in a drab visiting coaches’ locker room underneath PNC Arena.
Although this is a tremendous opportunity for Rowe as a first-time NHL coach, he didn’t seem too joyful in his comments to the media on a conference call Monday afternoon.
“The priority today and every day moving forward is to get us into the playoffs,” said Rowe, who has been a head coach at the AHL and KHL level but makes his NHL coaching debut Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center.
“There was too much inconsistency — and I’m not saying that’s Gerard’s fault. That falls on all of us: me, the players, the other coaches. We have to get this team on track. We feel we have a very good team. There are a few things we need to get moving in a different direction and need to do it quickly.”
A Jack Adams Award finalist for NHL coach of the year last season when the Panthers set franchise records for wins (47) and points (103) by winning the Atlantic Division, Gallant was a popular figure in the Florida locker room and throughout the organization.
A few players reached by the Miami Herald said the Panthers are upset and angry with the decision to fire Gallant after an offseason in which his roster was overhauled and a start to the season minus some of his best players.
Rowe said he met with the team briefly on Sunday night and planned to meet with captain Derek MacKenzie and assistants Jussi Jokinen and Aaron Ekblad at their Chicago hotel Monday afternoon. Rowe plans to formally address his team before morning skate Tuesday.
“It’s definitely something we’re going to have to talk about,” Rowe said of the mental state of his team following Gallant’s sacking.
“I’m going to lay out what our plan is, how we’re going to do things differently. The reason the players love Gerard so much is he treated them with respect. When you treat people with respect, you get respect back. That’s what we’re going to do as a coaching staff moving forward.”
Florida goes into Chicago a few points back of a playoff spot and stand 11-10-1 despite losing top scorer Jonathan Huberdeau to an Achilles’ tendon injury as well as having top-line forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen miss large chunks of the young season.
Yet the Panthers feel like they have an extremely talented team which is simply not performing to expectations.
As their record indicates, Florida has been just above average this season and in the end, that’s not going to cut it.
“We have great hockey players and I think anyone would be excited about this opportunity,” Rowe said. “I know what is at stake, I know the money that has been spent on this team.”
On Sunday, the Panthers jumped out with a pair of quick goals from Jonathan Marchessault and Jaromir Jagr to take a 2-0 lead into the first break.
Carolina scored three at the start of the second and held on for a win Florida’s management felt should have belonged to the Panthers.
Gallant paid the price for a Sunday night loss in Carolina with his job.
“We were going to go through the road trip but it came to a head a lot quicker,” said Rowe, who said he is turning over GM job responsibilities to assistants Steve Werier and Eric Joyce as well as hockey operations president Dale Tallon.
“We just said we would be making a coaching change, didn’t get into a whole lot of detail. We felt the inconsistency of the team needed a different direction. There wasn’t much more to say.”
As far as Gallant goes, his fate was likely sealed following Tuesday’s loss to the visiting Philadelphia Flyers.
According to Tallon, a meeting between management and ownership was held and the decision was made if things didn’t turn around in a hurry, a move would be made.
Gallant was critical of the lack of toughness – aside from veteran forward Shawn Thornton – on the roster as Florida focused on being a quicker, faster team in all facets of the game on Wednesday and his criticism apparently wasn’t well received.
Gallant indicated in a text message he saw this coming.
“There was no friction [between them],” Rowe said. “We disagreed obviously; in meetings behind closed doors, you’re not always going to agree with each other. But there wasn’t any friction, we had a great relationship. ...
“[Gallant] is a guy I respect and admire an awful lot. The players loved him. But this is a tough business and when the results aren’t there, tough decisions have to be made.”
Had Florida won Sunday night, Gallant would be coaching the Panthers on Tuesday in Chicago as Rowe admitted the team was going to give Gallant the entirety of this six-game road trip before making any final decisions.
After Sunday’s collapse, the decision was made. After Gallant met the local media in Raleigh, he met Rowe in the long hallway leading to the office.
Rowe had owner Vinnie Viola on the phone who opened by telling Gallant “you know I love ya” but continued with the bad news.
The Panthers, Viola and his front office decided, couldn’t let any more games slip away and a "change in leadership" as Viola said, was needed immediately.
“Vinnie always has first and last say,” team president and CEO Matt Caldwell said. “He talked to all of us ... We all work together but he ultimately makes the decisions and he decided to do it after [Sunday’s] game.”
The Panthers had the luggage for Gallant and fired assistant Mike Kelly brought off the airport-bound bus and called for a car service to come pick them up at the back of the arena.
An Associated Press photographer snapped shots of Kelly and Gallant piling their luggage into a taxi cab as it arrived before the car the team ordered showed up. Gallant wasn’t in any mood to stick around and grabbed the first car that arrived.
The visual of Gallant standing outside a vacant arena with his luggage isn’t a good one for the Panthers as it appears their successful coach was kicked to the curb, as it were.
Rowe, who said he and Gallant have a good relationship despite some disagreements on the Panthers new philosophy, wishes things would have worked out differently.
“I know what it looked it looked like, but what you didn’t see was me out there having a conversation with Gerard in the parking lot,” Rowe said.
“I think you can appreciate the situation, the way it was after the game. It was pretty hectic, I wanted to get Gerard away from the locker room. ...
“These are never easy situations. We handled it the best we could. It was a very difficult situation. Gerard is a terrific human being and a great coach.”
Tuesday: Panthers at Blackhawks
When/where: 8:30 p.m.; United Center, Chicago.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Chicago leads 20-10-3.
Scouting report: Kevin Dineen, the previous coach fired by the Panthers during midseason (2013), is an assistant coach with the Blackhawks. Florida hasn’t won in Chicago since 2009 — a run of five consecutive losses.