Bill Foley paid $500 million to get the Vegas Golden Knights into the NHL as an expansion team, and thus has some expectations for his investment. Like making the playoffs within three years. Like winning the Stanley Cup within eight years.
So now that the Knights have their first head coach in Gerard Gallant, when are they going to be winners?
“I’m not even going there,” said Gallant, former coach of the Florida Panthers, who was introduced on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena. “We have one player right now.”
Keeping those expectations in check is easy when you’re Gerard Gallant. He’s worked for an expansion team before, as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001. He eventually became the head coach there from 2003-07, before he was fired.
“Was I ready to be a head coach? I’m not sure,” said Gallant.
But he learned from it. Then in 2014, Panthers GM Dale Tallon came calling and made him their new head coach. Decisions he felt uneasy making in his first stop were now confident calls. He was a better communicator, a better game manager and had a better handle on what the culture of a successful team should look like.
The Panthers won the Atlantic Division title, before losing to the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Golden Knights GM George McPhee was working for the Islanders’ front office during that series, and was impressed with Gallant.
Unbeknownst to both of them, this would end up being an in-person audition for a job that didn’t exist yet.
But then Golden Knights were approved by the NHL as an expansion team. McPhee was their general manager. And 22 games into the 2016-17 season, Gallant was suddenly out of a job — fired by the Panthers due to lackluster play and (mostly) behind the scenes personality conflicts.
Gallant and McPhee connected quickly soon after, and before long Gallant was meeting with Golden Knights management.
“When you get fired, you’re down in the dumps. Then you get an interview, and you get excited again,” Gallant said. “I was looking for this job.”
It was around this time that McPhee gave him some valuable advice, something he had learned when the Washington Capitals parted ways with him: Take some time to yourself. Spend it with family. Watch some games as a fan. Recharge and refocus before the next thing.
Gallant took a breather, and was happy to see that the hockey world had his back after the Florida debacle.
“It meant everything. The support I got from people around the league, at that time, it didn’t seem right. They wanted to make a change, and that’s their right,” he said.
The Florida firing was a different kind of change for him. When he was fired in Columbus, it was his friend Doug MacLean making a difficult, emotional choice.
“This time, it was tough, but it wasn’t the same. It motivates you to be better,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Knights were going to do their due diligence. McPhee knew he wanted a coach that could work well with the potpourri of players they’ll have in year one. But he also wanted a coach with previous NHL experience.
“We primarily wanted an experienced coach, because they’re better with their second or third team,” said McPhee.
There was talk McPhee had reached out to Dale Hunter, who he hired as a short-lived head coach with the Washington Capitals, but was rebuffed. McPhee himself said the Knights were waiting on a few coaches until they could offer clarity on their intentions at season’s end.
They liked Gallant, but liked the luxury of their own timeline, too.
“We didn’t have any players to coach, so we weren’t in a rush. And we had so many other things to do, we had to get our priorities in order,” he said. “When you have time in this business, you use it. And we needed every bit of it.”
But as a result, McPhee is confident in the choice. “We got the right person for this team, and we did it in the timeline that we set for it,” he said. “We’re delighted Gerard picked us. And that we were able to pick him.”
What did they like?
McPhee saw enough of him to believe he has the goods on the ice. But it was his reputation as a player that really resonated with McPhee and assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon.
“Kelly brought up that he never minded a coach that has some street fighter in him. That’s an excellent way to express that,” said McPhee, mentioning coaches like Hunter and Pat Quinn within that theory. “Gerard was a tough, honest player. Sometimes those guys can relate to those players the best.”
The players will start arriving in droves in June, when the Vegas Golden Knights fill our their roster in the expansion draft. Perhaps then Gallant will have considered when, and if, his team will be the contender his owner desires sooner rather than later.
“When I became the coach here, well, today, we haven’t talked to much about that. I take it one day at a time. Hopefully it’s on Bill’s timetable,” he said.
That said, Gallant knows that in a parity-filled league, anything can happen.
“You look at the NHL today, and from first to the worst, there’s not that much a big difference,” he said. “We’re going to build a strong hockey team here.”
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