HockeyIs Gerard Gallant The Man To Turn Around The New Jersey Devils?
As the sports world continues to exist in its COVID-19 imposed purgatory, stories even of the offseason variety are hard to come by in sports media. These include coaching searches, free agent singings, trades and the draft, which with the exception of the NFL Draft (and possibly soon the NHL Draft), have been few and far between. However, one NHL franchise has embarked on a process that would normally be reserved for after the Stanley Cup playoffs, a playoff that they will not be participating in. That would be the search for their new head coach, and the man believed to be the frontrunner is arguably the most coveted candidate on the market.
That candidate would be Gerard Gallant, who most recently coached the Vegas Golden Knights. In a season where an unusual number of the NHL’s active head coaches at the start of the year were fired, Gallant’s firing was easily the most shocking. From the very first day he took the reins of the expansion Knights, he led them to almost nothing but success. No one expected the Knights to make the postseason, let alone with the Pacific Division, but under Gallant they did so and then made a run to the Stanley Cup Final to boot. His outstanding job as Vegas coach was rewarded with the Jack Adams Award, given each year to the coach voted on as the league’s best.
Vegas got off to a fairly strong, if uneven start to the 2019–20 season under Gallant’s leadership, strong enough for him to be chosen as the head coach for the Pacific Division All Star team. It was therefore a shocking bit of news when, on January 15, 2020, Vegas let him go with seemingly little warning. The story of what exactly caused Gallant’s firing, besides the surface reason of a short losing streak, is yet to be told, although on Knights fan podcasts , rumors swirled about him butting heads with the front office, team President George McPhee and General Manager Kelly McCrimmon.
Given Gallant’s above resume, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that New Jersey has emerged as the leading candidate for his services, at least so far. Going into the start of 2019–20, the Devils and their fans had high hopes of returning to the playoffs after a disastrous 18–19 season. They still boasted 2018 Hart Trophy (MVP) winner Taylor Hall, and made a number of offseason acquisitions to build a contender around him, such as star defenseman P.K. Subban and Russian winger Nikita Gusev (who had briefly played for Gallant and the Knights). They also added no.1 overall draft pick Jack Hughes, hoping for an instant impact from the young phenom. Sadly, it was not to be.
The team floundered out of the gate, with almost nothing going right. Well before the trade deadline, Hall, an impending free agent, was shipped off to the Arizona Coyotes for a package of prospects and draft picks, and coach John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero were fired. Virtually eliminated from playoff contention, the Devils did have an impressive run early in the new year that showed at least some of why many had picked them to make the playoffs.
Gusev, a star in the mostly Russian Kontinental Hockey League, seemed to finally adjust to the NHL after initial disappointment. Hughes showed flashes, albeit still inconsistent ones, of his no.1 potential, and 2017 no.1 pick Nico Hischier came into his own, earning his first All Star selection. Young goalie Mackenzie Blackwood showed that he could be the franchise’s netminder of the future.
While Gallant is not specifically known for having a great track record with younger players due to his success with the mostly veteran Golden Knights, he does have strengths in this area as well. In his previous post with the Florida Panthers, he got the most out of their three hyped youngsters, with forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov developing well under his tenure and defenseman Aaron Ekblad winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. The Devils could hope for far worse from Hischier, Hughes, and their other touted prospects still yet to reach the league.
But what Gallant represents most of all is the potential to exceed expectations right away. When the Knights first began play, George McPhee was blunt about how long he expected it to take for them to become a championship contender- the mantra was to build a playoff contender in three years, a Stanley Cup contender in six. Instead, the Knights became a Stanley Cup contender in one, and although that is first and foremost on the players, the coach is due great credit as well.
Furthermore, among the Knights’ ranks were some young players who developed outstandingly well under Gallant, with center William Karlsson going from a talented underachiever to a legitimate star, young defenseman Shea Theodore developing into a legitimate number 1 blue liner, and other success stories emerging.
The Devils hired Ray Shero as general manager in 2015, with the mandate to rebuild a club that had exhausted a long run of consistent playoff success. He was fired because, after five years, all New Jersey had to show for it was a single playoff appearance and inconsistent development from the young players they hoped would be the stars of the future.
Another long rebuild after all of that would provide only pain for the fanbase, with an uncertain outcome. What Gallant represents is the tantalizing hope that the Devils could take an end run around another five years of pain like they just went through. Is hiring him a guarantee of the kind of success Vegas enjoyed right away? Surely not. But the Devils arguably have a more promising collection of talent right now than the Knights did at the start of their first season- they were considered a potential playoff team on paper and the Knights were not. Gallant is as good a choice as anyone to realize those hopes and turn New Jersey’s fortunes on the ice around.