Other than injuries, the sloppiness of the first month of the season, the new rookies around the league, you’d have to say last night’s firing of Gerrard Gallant by the Florida Panthers has caught the most eyes from around the league. On a personal level, I still remember Gallant as a World Class giblet on the 80’s and early 90’s Wings, so anything bad happening to him is always going to bring something of a smile to my face. And yet I can’t get my arms around this one fully.
What we know is that the Panthers have not had much luck with injuries. Huberdeau is still out, Bjugstad has only played five games, and Jussi Jokinen has only played about half the season. That’s half the top six, so no team without elite depth is going to be able to survive that. The Panthers don’t have elite depth (I’m not sure anyone does anymore as the slowing of cap-growth has kneecapped just about everyone). This is nothing new to anyone.
The Panthers have also been bitten by the fact that James Reimer has been terrible, and they really wanted to cede more starts to him from Roberto Luongo due to Bob’s age. That wasn’t the worst idea, but it just hasn’t worked so far in the nine starts he’s gotten.
The problem with Gallant, so they say, is that he and management were constantly arguing about roster construction and deployment. We know the Panthers front office is perhaps one of the more analytical in the league, if not the most. They kind of have to be, or should be, given they can’t really be a cap team every year given their previous attendance woes and still current ones.
But at least on the ice, it wasn’t like Gallant had the Panthers playing in a way that was averse to what analytics people would want. This wasn’t Carlyle or Tortorella. The Cats currently are in eighth in the league in adjusted CF% this season. Overall, the past two seasons the Panthers are just about break even in the category, which isn’t optimum but also is hardly disaster. Especially when you consider the age of their core players and experience (other than Jagr), they seemed to be trending the right way.
If you dig a little deeper this year, the Panthers are just short of halfsies when it comes to xGF%. So though they may be getting more attempts than their opponents most nights, when compared with the kind of chances they’re giving up they still have some work to do. Though to be fair to them, in that category they are ahead of the Hawks and Lightning, so they’re just not getting the luck that the other two might be.
We only have a rough grasp of what it is the Panther’s front office is chasing. We know that Gallant liked to have size and rough-and-tumble. He wasn’t happy that Erik Gudbranson was flogged. But Erik Gudbranson just isn’t that good. We know that the Cats FO was trying to find sneaky, skilled signings, as Jesse Marchessault is proof of. You could argue Colton Sceviour was another, given his consistent AHL scoring that never really translated to Dallas.
But it has to be more than just finding scoring, right? There has to be specific things the Panthers want and how they want them deployed. Is it simply Corsi players? That would seem a little too underdeveloped or uncreative. What do they value? What do they think is important? That’s harder to decode in hockey. In baseball, it’s obvious to watch players take a lot of pitches or shift their defense per batter. Hockey is far less static.
Right now the Panthers are being dismissed by pretty much the whole media wing of the league, which happens to teams run by guys who didn’t used to play that just fired a guy who did. What I do know is that a front office filled with guys with Ivy League diplomas who have also conquered Wall Street probably see things differently, and that should honestly be greatly welcomed by hockey fans. This is a sport that’s needed original thought like Renton seeking out Mother Superior. And we just watched one win a World Series in this part of town for the first time in a long time.
As something of a new-age fan, I really want the Panthers to succeed. I think the obstacles are big. The players loved Gallant, and they aren’t robots. Tom Rowe is going to have a lot of hearts and minds to win over, descending from the GMs office that is probably eyed pretty skeptically by the players after last night. The theories and data may be sound but it won’t work if you can’t get the players to buy into it. And even if they do, the Cats still aren’t as talented as Tampa in their division, and don’t possess a Bergeron and Marchand like the Bruins do.
But I want to see it. It would be fun to see what hockey does when a team with new ideas and methods wins. What will they say? Would their ways be emulated? Certainly more interesting than more of the same.