The Florida Panthers fired Gerard Gallant because of inconsistent play and a philosophical divide between the coach and front office, team officials said Monday.
The Panthers officially announced Monday morning that general manager Tom Rowe — a former head coach and general manager of the Albany River Rats — was stepping in as interim coach for the remainder of the season, hours after Gallant was fired following a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night.
“I just want to relay one simple message,” team president Matt Caldwell said Monday at the start of a conference call with reporters. “Our ownership is completely committed to winning the Stanley Cup. When Vinnie Viola bought the team three years ago, those were the first words out of his mouth, as to what he wanted to do for South Florida and our franchise.
“We’re very proud of the season we had last year, a great turnaround year, made the playoffs for first time in a while, and we made a number of great moves this offseason. We had very high expectations for our season with Gerard Gallant as our coach . . .
“But as the management team came together at the 20-game mark, we’ve been unhappy with the inconsistent performance and just think we should be playing better at this stage of the season. We decided the change is necessary to move in a different direction.”
Gallant, 53, compiled a 96-65-25 record in two-plus seasons — his .583 winning percentage was highest in Panthers history — and he was runner-up for the Jack Adams Coach of the Year award last season. He had two more years remaining on his contract.
Rowe, 60, becomes the 14th coach in team history and said he will turn over all general manager duties to former GM-turned-president-of-hockey-operations Dale Tallon and co-assistant GMs Steve Werier and Eric Joyce.
“I’m going to be totally focused on the coaching,” said Rowe, who coached the River Rats, at the time a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate, to an 80-66-14 record in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, leading them to the playoffs both seasons. “The priority today and every day is to get us into the playoffs. What we do going forward we’ll worry about that in the offseason.
“There’s too much inconsistency, and I’m not saying that’s Gerard’s fault. That falls on all of us. At the end of the day, we’ve got to get this team on track. We think we have a very good team.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity. We got great hockey players and I think anybody would be excited about the opportunity. I know what’s at stake. I know the money that’s been spent on this team; I know the commitment from ownership to the front office, the coaches and the players. My job is totally focused on coaching and getting to the playoffs and have a good run.”
There had been whispers of friction between Gallant and the front office over the latter’s emphasis on advanced analytics, which dictated some of the controversial offseason moves, such as trading rugged defenseman Erik Gudbranson to the Vancouver Canucks for unproven 20-year-old forward Jared McCann, now in the minors.
“There was actually no friction,” Rowe said. “We disagreed, obviously. You have meetings behind closed doors, you’re not always going to agree with each other. I had a real good relationship with Gerard and Mike Kelly [an assistant coach who was also fired].
“There was definitely a philosophical divide and conflict,” Rowe added, referring to analytics. “We wanted to develop a fast team, move the puck quickly and attack the net, and pressure the puck in all three zones. Gerard wanted a little more size. We decided to go in a different direction. Were we on the same page every day? No. Our philosophies were different and did weigh into the decision that was tough to make.”
Rowe said he and Caldwell spent 45 minutes with Gallant after he met with the media following the loss to Carolina, adding that Viola called Gallant during the meeting. Rowe said he told the players about the coaching change after the game, and they were emotional.
“What management and owners do is out of our control,” Panthers second-line center Vincent Trocheck said via text message to the Sun Sentinel. “We can control how we play every night and as a group, we let down a great coach and friend.”
Rowe planned to meet with the leadership council of the team Monday afternoon and the entire team before tonight’s game against the host Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’ve got to lay out what our plan is and how we’re going to do things differently,” Rowe said. “The reason the players loved Gerard so much is he treated them with respect and held them accountable. I don’t have plans too much different from that. You treat people with respect, you get respect back.”
The Panthers are 11-10-1, a slight improvement over last season’s 9-9-4 mark at the same juncture. Last year, they went on to win the Atlantic Division title while setting franchise records with 47 wins and 103 points.
Rowe said his first change will be to “attack our defensive zone system” and focus on improving special teams that hurt the Panthers during their first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders.
He said he will jointly run the power play with associate coach Dave Barr, while assistant coach Scott Allen handles the penalty killing, with help from goalie coach Robb Tallas.
“We want to go into more of an area zone-coverage-type system,” Rowe said. “We don’t think we need to make a ton [of changes] right now. We will as time goes on. Defensively, we want to fix that area first.
“We’re going to practice faster, practice harder and that’s going to carry over into games.”
The Panthers scored two quick goals in the first period Sunday, but gave up three goals in a sloppy second period, which led to the loss.
Rowe said that management had planned to evaluate Gallant based on the entire six-game road trip before making any decisions, but “after we collapsed in the second period last night, it came to a head a lot quicker.”
The Panthers’ slow start can be at least partially attributed to the team incorporating 15 players onto the roster who had minor or no roles here on last season.
Injuries have also taken a toll, especially the loss of top-line forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who sliced his Achilles’ tendon in the final preseason game and probably won’t return for another two months. His loss drastically affected linemates Jaromir Jagr and Aleksander Barkov, who have combined for just five goals in the first 22 games, compared to 55 last season.
Also, top-nine forward Nick Bjugstad, who led the team in goals just two seasons ago, has played just the last three games after recovering from a broken wrist. Second-line forward Jussi Jokinen has one goal and just four points in 12 games, missing 10 games due to a knee injury and flu-bug.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who signed an eight-year, $60 million contract extension over the summer, has gotten hot lately with four of his six goals coming in the last seven games, but he has yet to notch an assist, while dubiously leading the team with a minus-7.
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