The Vegas Golden Knights sent shockwaves through the NHL on Wednesday when they announced the firing of head coach Gerard Gallant, replacing him with Peter DeBoer.
It is a stunning move not only because it came completely out of nowhere, but because there does not appear to be any rational thought or logical explanation behind the decision. Not when you try to analyze it objectively from the outside. And certainly not when you hear general manager Kelly McCrimmon try to justify it.
Yes, it is true that the Golden Knights are stuck in the middle of a four-game losing streak and coming off a bad loss to a bad and banged up Buffalo Sabres team on Tuesday night. It is also true that at the time of the coaching change the Golden Knights are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture. But they are also just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division. They are a team that over the past two years — the first two years of the franchise’s existence! — played in the Stanley Cup Final and was a historically bad penalty call in a Game 7 away from potentially making another deep postseason run.
To fire the coach behind that because the team is maybe a few points worse than you hoped for at the mid-way point seems to be a dramatically short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction. The NHL coaching carousel is an unforgiving place and job security is always low for the people riding on it, but this seems drastic even by NHL coaching standards. Especially when you dig into the team’s actual performance and McCrimmon’s lack of an explanation.
The Golden Knights seem to be betting on McCrimmon’s instinct
In talking about the decision, McCrimmon was unable — or unwilling — to go into any details or provide any specifics as to why a coaching change was necessary. More than once he referred to a “feel.”
“As a manager sometimes you have a feeling that something isn’t the way you need it to be or want it to be,” McCrimmon said. “We feel we have 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.”
When asked how long he had contemplated a change. His response, again, went back to his “feel,” while admitting it was hard for him to get into specifics.
“It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words I guess unless you’ve done these jobs, it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed. I wish I could be more specific than that, but that’s really how we felt. We thought about this a lot. It certainly wasn’t something that we did in haste, or something that we did based on the recent four games. It was a decision that was arrived at over time.”
No specifics. Nothing more than a “feel.” Repeatedly saying it doesn’t all fall at the feet of the two coaches that were fired. It’s hard to listen to all of that, then look at the success Gallant had, and not come to the conclusion that was just an immediate reaction to a small sampling of results.
Especially when the team itself has probably played better than its record.
Strong process … mediocre results
When it comes to their 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights are controlling the pace of play in a lot of key areas.
Their 53.9 percent shot attempt share is fourth best in the NHL.
They have expected goals share of 54.8 percent that is second best in the NHL.
Their scoring chance shares (both all scoring chances and high-danger chances) are both in the top-five.
They are controlling the pace of games at a level that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup contenders.
So why haven’t the results followed in the standings?
You can probably start with the fact their team save percentage at 5-on-5 is 25th in the league. Not only has Marc-Andre Fleury not had a great season, but they still haven’t found a capable backup behind him to give him a break. No position impacts a team — or a coach — more than goaltending.
Look at the Jack Adams Award winner in a given season, and you will find a great goalie. Look at the coaches get fired in-season, and you will no doubt find a poor goaltending performance.
Vegas is the fifth different team to make a coaching change this season for performance based reasons, and here is where each team currently ranks in 5-on-5 save percentage: 16th (Nashville), 23rd (Toronto), 25th (Vegas), 27th (New Jersey), and 31st (San Jose).
Notice a trend?
Vegas’ defense may not be made up of superstars, and it may not be a great defensive team overall. But it’s certainly not a bad one, either. And it’s definitely a team that has played well enough overall to be in a dramatically different spot with just a few more saves from its goalies.
Maybe it all works for Vegas. DeBoer is a good coach with a strong track record, and also a coach that was done in by terrible goaltending the past two years. It is entirely possible that Fleury rebounds with a strong second half, at which point Vegas will probably take off again if it keeps playing the way it has and DeBoer will get the reward and praise.
But this all points to a flawed decision-making process and perhaps a misunderstanding of why teams succeed or fail. That might be the most concerning thing for the long-term outlook of the Golden Knights.