Column: NHL observations: Gerard Gallant’s magic touch will be missed by Golden Knights

Gerard Gallant
Gerard Gallant was fired by the Golden Knights after just 2 1/2 seasons with the team, which included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in Vegas’ inaugural season.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

In 2018, Gerard Gallant was acclaimed as a genius for guiding the thrown-together expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup final. The team was fast and entertaining, and he had a magic touch, able to read his players’ moods and put them into the right situations to succeed.

He was a deserving winner of the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

So it was shocking when Gallant was fired Wednesday, the seventh coach to be dismissed this season. Gallant, who had a .601 winning percentage over 2 ½ seasons, and assistant coach Mike Kelly were shown the door after the Golden Knights had lost four straight games and had fallen from first in the Pacific Division to outside a playoff spot.

“Obviously, it’s easier to change two coaches than 15 guys,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury told reporters, voicing an eternal truth.


Gallant was popular among players, who expressed remorse over his departure. “Everyone loved him and loved playing for him,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “We just, I guess, came up short for him and cost him his job. ... As a group in here we know we’ve underachieved so far and it’s a wake-up call.”

The Golden Knights had been inconsistent, generating enough concern for general manager Kelly McCrimmon to act. Or, maybe, overreact. “Sometimes, you have a feeling that something isn’t the way you need it to be or want it to be,” McCrimmon said at a news conference. “We feel we’ve underperformed a little bit and certainly that’s not to pile that at the feet of Mike and Gerard, but sometimes you feel a change is needed.”

Gallant was replaced by Peter DeBoer, who had been fired by the San Jose Sharks in December. Gallant probably won’t be out of work for long: His remarkable success with the first-year Golden Knights makes him an ideal choice to coach the expansion Seattle franchise, which will debut in 2021-22. He also has ties to the league-worst Detroit Red Wings, but they’ll probably wait until after the season (and before the draft lottery) to fire Jeff Blashill.

The Kings and Ducks are among NHL teams working to reach a new audience. “As demographics of North America are changing, we know that we need to be relevant,” says a league official.

To recap the changes: Mike Babcock (Toronto) was fired in November for team performance reasons; Bill Peters (Calgary Flames) resigned in November after it was discovered he had verbally and physically abused players; John Hynes (New Jersey Devils) was fired in December for on-ice reasons; Jim Montgomery was fired by the Dallas Stars and later said he had begun treatment for alcohol abuse; DeBoer was fired by the underachieving Sharks; and Peter Laviolette was fired by the Nashville Predators this month because the team was out of a playoff position. Hynes succeeded Laviolette, continuing the NHL’s ecologically conscious habit of recycling coaches.

Anyone who resorts to physical or verbal abuse to convey a message is a coward and doesn’t deserve the honor of being called “coach.”

Gallant had been appointed the Pacific Division coach at the upcoming All-Star weekend in St. Louis, but the NHL replaced him with Arizona’s Rick Tocchet.

Add a front-office firing to the tally

Ray Shero was let go by the Devils last Sunday after less than five years on the job, completing a rare midseason coach/GM dismissal double. His off-season acquisitions of Wayne Simmonds and P.K. Subban flopped and he couldn’t fix the organization’s lack of depth in goal.

Shero won the draft lottery in 2017 and took Nico Hischier and won again in 2019, taking Jack Hughes, but the Devils made the playoffs only once during his tenure and will miss out again this season.

Assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, considered a rising star among executives, was appointed the interim GM. Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur will work with him.

Sid the Kid is the Man

Sidney Crosby, on the ice, bent at the waist and holding his stick horizontally.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored in overtime Friday against Detroit, his third game after having surgery.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Sidney Crosby didn’t miss a beat — or a scoring chance — in his return after missing 28 games because of core muscle surgery. He rejoined the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday and collected a goal and three assists in a 7-3 rout of Minnesota, playing 17 minutes and 53 seconds and winning 65% of his faceoffs. In his second game, against Boston on Thursday, he scored on his first shot. On Friday, he scored the overtime winner against Detroit.

“For most guys, there’s a period of adjustment back to the speed of the NHL game, and Sid missed an extended period of time. But if you are asking if I’m surprised, the answer would be no because I watch his work ethic every day and how he prepares himself to get back into the lineup,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters Friday.

It’s a tribute to the Penguins’ depth that they went 18-6-4 without him, but they’ll be a powerful force with him back in the lineup. The league is a better and more interesting place with a healthy Crosby around.

Sam Steel scored on a breakaway 1:36 into overtime to lift the Ducks over the Hurricanes 2-1 Friday night.

An All-Star game fans can get behind

The NHL got rave reviews for adding elite female players to the skills contests at last year’s All-Star game and is involving women again in St. Louis by staging a three-on-three game between top female players from Canada and the U.S.

Cammi Granato, a Hockey Hall of Fame member who’s a pro scout for the incoming Seattle expansion franchise, will coach Team USA. Jayna Hefford, a fellow Hall of Fame player and former commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, will coach Canada. The game will consist of two 10-minute periods played at running time, ideal for showcasing speed and skill.

Matchups between the two superpowers of the women’s game are always welcome even though this one will have a gimmicky format. They’ll play a standard game on Feb. 8 at Anaheim as part of their rivalry tour.

The logical question is whether the NHL’s next step will be underwriting a women’s professional league, as the NBA has financially and strategically supported the WNBA. To date, commissioner Gary Bettman has carefully stayed neutral and has said he will allow market forces to determine what happens in the women’s game.

Continued positive reaction to women’s All Star participation might nudge Bettman and owners toward backing a women’s league on an experimental basis.

Kovalchuk finds new life in Montreal

Canadiens left wing Ilya Kovalchuk and Flames goaltender David Rittich looking at the puck.
Canadiens left wing Ilya Kovalchuk moves in on Flames goaltender David Rittich during the first period of a game Jan. 13.
(Graham Hughes / Associated Press)

Winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed with the Canadiens after the Kings terminated his contract, had three goals and seven points in his first seven games with his new team. In 17 games as a King this season, he had three goals and nine points.

He’s getting a good amount of power play time and he’s finishing, a feat he rarely managed during his season and a half with the Kings. All the more reason for them to grumble while they carry his $6.25-million salary cap hit the rest of this season and next season.