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Why On Earth Did the Florida Panthers Fire Gerard Gallant?

Only a season after leading the Panthers to a 103-point season, the Panthers unceremoniously fired Gerard Gallant after the team's slow start in 2016.
November 29, 2016, 4:16pm
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

You know the fantasy you have about telling your boss you quit? Is it elaborate? Is there a speech? How much shame is involved? Do you think about all the ways you would embarrass them? Maybe you'd do it in a way where you'd have someone nearby take pictures so it would go viral. The whole world would know what you did.

Well, apparently all of that is a two-way street, because the people running the Florida Panthers seem to have lived out a similar fantasy about firing an employee. Namely, Gerard Gallant.

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How else can you explain the decision by the front-office group that took power this offseason to discard the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history? Not only did the Panthers' decision-makers can Gallant a quarter of the way through the season after he guided the team to its best regular season in franchise history, but they also left him on the side of the road in Raleigh, N.C., like an old couch.

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What would the Panthers have done if Gallant had gotten off to a 5-14-3 start this year? Would they have let fans throw rotten fruit at him outside the BB&T Center? (That's where the Panthers play their home games, a place you probably aren't familiar with, because based on attendance figures, the people that live within a drive of the arena aren't familiar with it, either.)

Treatment of Gallant aside, it's hard to understand how the Panthers reached this decision.

Let's get right to the obvious argument—the new regime did not hire Gallant, who was believed to be anything but a friend to analytics. The hiring decision rests with Dale Tallon, the man who also extended Gallant before he was "promoted" from general manager and stripped of his power. But even if the mathsturbaters who are running things now didn't love Gallant's work this year, did they see what he did last year with what must be considered an inferior roster?

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The 2015-16 Panthers were about dead-even in score-adjusted Fenwick last season, finishing at 49.9 percent. Just about every move made during the offseason was designed to improve that number. Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov were traded. Jason Demers and Keith Yandle were signed. They extended their core and crafted a faster team.

The 2016-17 Panthers rank eighth in score-adjusted Fenwick at 52.2 percent, and this is in spite of Jonathan Huburdeau and Nick Bjugstad combining to play three games and Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr, Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck combining for 15 goals after scoring 110 goals last season.

If the argument is that Gallant didn't put those players in positions to succeed based on the organization's new emphasis on analytics, then why does dirt-cheap fancy-stats signing Jonathan Marchessault have 10 goals and 17 points in 22 games? Is Gallant suddenly an idiot? Or are Barkov (-11.5), Smith (-6.0), and Trocheck (-2.6) all shooting well below their career-high shooting percentages of a year ago the sort of development management should have expected before extending their contracts last year? Is it Gallant's fault that the 44-year-old Jagr is shooting 5.9 percent after he shot 18.9 percent as a 43-year-old?

Considering the dropoff of his top-four scorers and the absence of Huburdeau and Bjugstad, Gallant getting the Panthers to 11-10-1 is a minor miracle.

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You have to be in one of two camps with Gallant: He's either a bad coach who doesn't understand equations, or he has a bunch of players returning to Earth after career years, and he was missing two of his best forwards.

One year you're representing the team at an awards show, the next year you're being blamed for a slow start. Photo by Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Either way, it's a real convenient spot for new coach and first-year general manager Tom Rowe, who installs himself after a sloppily crafted coup just as Huburdeau and Bjugstad are returning, and with his other top forwards due to at least somewhat turn it around.

Generally, general managers fire the bullet at well-liked coaches when things are much bleaker than this. They don't do it when their clubs are two points out of a playoff spot in late-November. Indeed, Rowe could be setting himself up for trouble: if he doesn't steer the team back into the playoffs one year after a 103-point season, all that blame he could have heaped on Gallant will shift entirely to a front office that is supposed to be the geniuses in this scenario. Meanwhile, if the team barely reaches the playoffs, it's like, yeah, the guy you had a few months ago did it last year. Way to go.

That's the thing about hockey—the next 60 games will be treated as a referendum on analytics. You can feel the narrative taking shape: "Will the computer nerds and their abacus-based hockey dork their way to a playoff spot?" You will want to throw your computer into a furnace. You will barely hear about the mid-season changing of the system, the firing of a coach the players loved and believed in, Rowe's new deployments, or the effect of giving millions of dollars to many players that would have been in contract seasons.

There are so many things hockey that can't be controlled. You can be a dynamic possession team like the 2014-15 Los Angeles Kings, who missed the playoffs completely. You can be an inept possession team like the 2014-15 Calgary Flames, who lucked their way to the second round of the postseason.

The one thing you can control is not being assholes to a person who brought you the type of success that escaped your garbage franchise for nearly two decades. You can relieve him of his duties, sure, but you don't have to relieve him of his dignity while doing so.

The Panthers could be better on the ice the rest of the season, but it will be hard for them to be worse off it.

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