Shock waves reverberated through the Las Vegas Valley on Wednesday morning when most of us woke up to the news that the Vegas Golden Knights had relieved head coach Gerard Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelly of their coaching duties.
As we all know, that’s fancy speak for, they were fired. And in the next breath after announcing the firings, general manager Kelly McCrimmon announced that the Golden Knights had hired Peter DeBoer, who was fired by the arch-rival San Jose Sharks a month ago. There is a ton of information to unpack and emotions to sort out. For the sake of clarity, I am going to divide this article into three distinct parts and offer some possible conclusions.
Part One: The Optics of This Are Very Bad
There is just no way to spin this to make it look good for the Golden Knights and appease the rabid fan base. The Vegas-centric internet has been on fire – 99 percent of the responses were littered with hatred, anger, shock and vitriol. While I understand their feelings, and respect their collective opinion, it’s been a charmed existence for the Golden Knights and their fans from Game 1 of the magical first season. That aside, everything about this looks bad.
From its suddenness to the inconsistencies of the timelines and the words of McCrimmon, to the selection of DeBoer, this is just an ugly situation. Unfortunately, as is the nature of these type of things, we will likely never know all or anything of what was the real decision-making process. That was only made worse when McCrimmon said during the morning press conference “I just had a feeling…” In lieu of facts, a comment like that will go absolutely nowhere to improve how this whole situation is seen.
Part Two: The Hard Hockey Truths About the Golden Knights
Plain and simple, the firing of coaches Gallant and Kelly is on the Golden Knights players, 100%. For proof, you needn’t look any further than Marc-Andre Fleury saying after Wednesday morning’s practice that he was mad at himself for letting this happen, and that it was tough that, as a group, the players cost two coaches their jobs. There could be no more stinging indictment and confirmation that this one is on them.
The players have been given everything by the team, the owner and the absolute unwavering support of the Las Vegas community. The owner spent to the salary cap limit, brought in All-Stars and has empowered them with every possible tool to win.
The truth is that, since “The Call” that effectively ended their season in San Jose in Game 7 of the opening round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the Golden Knights have been incredibly inconsistent and playing far below their (own) expectations. Only three players on the entire roster have been playing up to expectations – Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Reilly Smith. That’s three out of 20-plus roster players. There have also been the notable significant regressions of Nate Schmidt and others. The goaltending tandem of Fleury and Malcolm Subban has also struggled.
The unfortunate passing of Fleury’s father on Nov. 27 has changed the entire dynamic in goal for the Golden Knights. No one will ever question Fleury’s heart or dedication, and I am NOT of the mind that there is any regression whatsoever in his game. But since his return, Fleury has struggled mightily. And Subban is just not a goaltender the Golden Knights will be able to ride to a deep playoff run.
To finish the point on inconsistency and underperformance, the Golden Knights’ special teams suffered a steep decline in effectiveness, especially over the current four-game losing streak that led to Wednesday’s firings.
All of these examples are likely the real reasons behind Gallant and Kelly’s demise in Vegas. Unfortunately, you can’t fire the players, and the coach is almost always the first to go.
Part Three: The Case for Bounce Back
There are two relevant comparisons that the Golden Knights’ braintrust must be hoping for with the timing of the firings.
Last November, the St. Louis Blues were last overall in the NHL when they fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Though it took them a little while to adjust to a new system and the emergence of rookie Jordan Binnington played a huge part, the Blues turned their season around and captured the club’s first Stanley Cup.
Similarly, in 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins were toiling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference when GM Jim Rutherford fired coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Dan Bylsma. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup.
I am not going out on a limb and predicting the Golden Knights will win the Cup this year. What I am saying is that there are incidents where a dramatic change mid-season has produced the ultimate result.
Part Four: What Happens Now?
No one knows how the Golden Knights are going to respond to the shock of losing their head coach. What I am very sure of is the next seven games will be the determining factor in how this season ends up for the Golden Knights.
I expect the over the next three games DeBoer will mostly observe the Golden Knights as he begins to implement his plan and systems. Then comes the All-Star Break where DeBoer will do the hard work of fine-tuning the system changes for the remainder of this season. After returning from the All-Star break, the Golden Knights have four more games on the road. Those four games will be the absolute telltale for the Golden Knights.
UPDATE: Game One of the DeBoer Era Is in the Books.
Not to pat myself on the back for my prognostication skills, but coach DeBoer’s pre-game comments echoed the paragraph above. Most of the coaching in last night’s focused dominating 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators was handled by assistant coaches Ryan McGill and Ryan Craig. DeBoer confirmed that he was going to take these first three games to observe the Golden Knights and that implementing changes would come after the All Star Game and bye week after some practice time.
If they buy into DeBoer, his systems and style, the Golden Knights should come out flying. They are a proud team, profoundly embarrassed by costing their coach his job.
On the other hand, if the Golden Knights don’t buy in, and the team flounders, aspirations of the Stanley Cup will be long gone, as will most likely their appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs at all.
The era of Golden Knights 2.0 is upon us. Buckle up, it’s going to be one hell of a ride!