AP Images

Gallant’s patience helping Golden Knights get back on track

2 Comments

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Gerard Gallant insisted over the first two months of the season that the Vegas Golden Knights would be fine once they found their rhythm and re-established the type of chemistry that led them to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Apparently, Gallant knew what he was talking about.

Vegas has won a season-high four straight after trouncing the Blackhawks 8-3 on Tuesday night. The Golden Knights (13-12-1) are right back in the playoff race after sitting near the bottom of the Western Conference less than two weeks ago.

”It was a tough start and we were battling through it,” Gallant said this week. ”We had a terrific year last year. We had a short summer because we went to the Stanley Cup Final and … most of the time your team falls back a little bit. You’ve got to have patience with your team.”

Patience is something center Jonathan Marchessault said the 53-year-old soft-spoken coach has always had, from their time together in Florida and now in Las Vegas. Marchessault said Gallant’s top priority always has been to assure his players he has faith in them.

”That’s the culture he wants to bring; it’s kind of hard to believe, but he did stay the same,” Marchessault said. ”A lot of guys in his position, I think, would have been more impatient with the team, but he stuck with what he believes and right now we’re having a good stretch. He knew it was just a matter of time that we get started. And right now, we’re playing some good hockey.”

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has won his last five starts. After ranking near the bottom of the league with its offensive production, Vegas has won five of six by outscoring its opponents 25-8 in the victories.

The emergence of Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and newcomer Max Pacioretty on the second line has bolstered the team’s offense. The biggest surprise has been Eakin, who had two goals and an assist in the victory over the Blackhawks.

Eakin has 10 goals and six assists in 23 games after he had 11 goals and 16 assists all of last season. The eighth-year pro said Gallant’s approach has helped his confidence, which is why he has been able to take advantage of his time on the second line while Erik Haula recovers from a lower-body injury.

”It’s important when you’re going through a tough little start to let the players kind of figure it out themselves instead of overcoaching,” Eakin said. ”It comes from the top, getting those opportunities and just taking it and skating with it. You have to just be confident in yourself to do it. When things are going good you want to kind of ride the wave.”

Gallant said the Knights have found the rhythm he was looking for since the start of the season, when they opened up with five of their first six and 11 of 18 on the road.

Most importantly, he said, is how well the Knights have played against the Pacific Division. Vegas has the best record among all eight teams, going 6-1-1 thus far, including Fleury’s back-to-back shutout wins over Calgary and San Jose last weekend.

”You look at our division, I don’t think it’s got off to a great start in our whole division, but I think there’s a lot of good teams there and I compare our team to the other teams and if we play the way we played this weekend, we’re right there,” Gallant said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Panthers must resist making same old mistakes

Getty
4 Comments

If we’ve learned anything from the last decade-plus of hockey in the salary cap era, it’s that even the most well-run NHL teams sometimes need to make the not-quite-ideal decision to fire a coach during the season.

Such gambles can pay off, whether we’re talking about short-term gains or the sort of stylistic changes that powered, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Look at Joel Quenneville; as frustrating as it must have been for him to get fired mid-stream, he was also an in-season replacement for the Chicago Blackhawks. That ended up being a pretty good call.

So, sure, sometimes such decisions are unavoidable, as messy as they are.

It gets tougher to argue for wholesale changes when you keep doing it over and over again, and that thought bubbles to the surface as there are at least faint murmurs about Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers.

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that Boughner’s job wasn’t saved (sub required) when the Panthers eked out a 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Out of context, it’s reasonable to at least wonder. The Panthers came into 2018-19 as a dark horse candidate after nearly roaring into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, suckering more than a few people (raises hand) into thinking that they could be a dangerous team.

Instead, they continue to be a day late and a dollar short, finding themselves with a mediocre 9-9-4 record, tying them for second-to-last in the East with 22 standings points.

What’s maddening is that so much is going right for the Panthers, at least when you consider the fact that they’re without sorely underrated center Vincent Trocheck for the distant future.

It stings that the Panthers are so mediocre despite Mike Hoffman being red-hot, Aleksander Barkov being Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov solidifying himself as a great winger, Keith Yandle piling up points, and Jonathan Huberdeau actually staying healthy. If you were to give the NHL the “NBA Jam” treatment* and just boil things down to a team’s best players, then the Panthers could go toe-to-toe with anyone, more or less.

So, what gives? What’s coming down the road, and what should the Panthers do? Let’s explore.

* – Or “Open Ice” treatment, if you want to be a Midway stickler.

Trouble in net

For a budget team like the Panthers, investing $4.533 million in Roberto Luongo, $3.4M in James Reimer, and another $1.3M in Michael Hutchinson would be tough to stomach even if it was working out.

Troublingly, things very much have not been working out, and the future looks a little glum. After all, Luongo’s hated contract runs through 2021-22(!) and Reimer’s won’t expire until after 2020-21 season.

It’s tempting to give Luongo a pass because a) he’s been great for so long, not to mention often-unappreciated and b) injuries have really disrupted him lately. Still, when he’s been on the ice, he hasn’t been great, with just a .902 save percentage over nine fragmented appearances.

As a goalie who was once (mostly justifiably) a fancy stats darling, Reimer has been a big disappointment lately. Instead of flourishing with Luongo out, Reimer’s been lousy, suffering an .895 save percentage this season. Hutchinson’s been even worse.

Could some of those struggles boil down to coaching?

Possibly, but this isn’t a Randy Carlyle-type situation where a team is just bleeding chances at an alarming level. The Panthers are averaging 31.2 shots allowed per game, tying them for 12th in the NHL with the low-tempo, more-troubled Kings. That’s easier to stomach when you realize Florida is firing 35.6 SOG per game, second only to the volume-crazed Hurricanes. On paper, you’d think the Panthers could make that work.

Granted, certain numbers smile upon Boughner less than others. While the Panthers score well (to extremely well) in even-strength possession stats like Fenwick For Percentage, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers put them in the bottom-third when it comes to their balance between creating and limiting high-danger scoring chances.

However you weigh Boughner’s share of the blame, it’s not really as if the Panthers are a disaster.

They would need to be

And let’s be honest, it’s about time that this franchise picks a course and sticks with it for a while.

As Richards notes, Bougher is the fifth Panthers head coach since the team came under new ownership in 2013-14. They’ve had a bad run of pulling the plug early lately. Bougher’s merely in his second season with Florida. The Panthers also:

  • Fired Kevin Dineen 16 games in 2013-14.
  • Handled Gerard Gallant’s in-season firing as sloppily as possible in 2016-17, allowing for the notorious photo of the bewildered coaching getting into a cab after being canned. That was an awful look then, and it only gets worse as Gallant racks up achievements with the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Tom Rowe barely got a look in replacing Gallant, and things flip-flopped again when Dale Tallon took over for the analytics-minded, briefly-lived regime (thank goodness).

That timeline doesn’t even cover how wayward this franchise has been before new ownership took over, as it seemed like there was an unending stream of new cooks in the kitchen, whether the team continuously shed coaches, GMs, or both.

Such a scatterbrained (lack of) gameplan at least partially explains why the Panthers have only made the playoffs three times since 1997-98, and haven’t won a single playoff series since that stunning run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Yes, it’s best not to simply double down because of sunk costs, but the Panthers would risk making the same mistake over and over again if they gave Bougher such a short run as head coach.

Big tests

That said, the Panthers are about to play the third game of what looks like a crucial eight-game homestand. Here are the remaining six games:

Wed, Nov. 28 vs. Anaheim
Fri, Nov. 30 vs. Buffalo
Sat, Dec. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Tue, Dec. 4 vs. Boston
Thu, Dec. 6 vs. Colorado
Sat, Dec. 8 vs. Rangers

Not exactly an easy haul, right? Simply put, playoff teams fight through tough stretches, especially when it comes down to gaining crucial points during long runs of home games. So far, the Panthers have been up-and-down, yet they’ve managed to get three of four points (1-0-1).

It’s tough for Florida to see Montreal play well above expectations so far, and for the Sabres to make the leap they dreamed about. With the Lightning and Maple Leafs delivering as expected and the Bruins hanging in there through injuries, it doesn’t look like it will be an easy path for the Panthers.

Whether they can scratch and claw their way into a playoff berth or must suffer through another disappointing season, the bottom line is that Florida needs to start churning out better results. Boughner has to know that, even if it would be pretty harsh if it cost him his job.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better coaching?

NBC Sports
6 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the conclusion of this current season. He entered the year with no job security, no sense of what his future would hold and still steering his troops to the top of the heap in the Metropolitan Division, and now, the Stanley Cup Final.

Washington’s start to the season didn’t help and rumors of Trotz’s pending axing swirled. But the man who sits fifth all-time in coaching wins turned his team around.

Trotz has found another gear behind the bench and has guided the Caps with calmness during these playoffs. It’s paid off. The Capitals were able to exercise their demons against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then come back from being 3-2 down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oh, and he did this:

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

There isn’t a world where Gerard Gallant doesn’t win the Jack Adams this year for top bench boss in the NHL. He’s simply done the unthinkable with a team no one expected to be competing, never mind being one of two teams set to do battle for the Stanley Cup.

Look, Gallant was given a bunch of players from all over the league and a mandate to try and figure out how they all fit together, who plays on what line. Who pairs with who on defense. What the power play and penalty kill look like. It was a tall task to begin with, but Gallant has nailed it every step of the way.

There’s been lots of talk of how poorly the Panthers fared when they lost both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. But one of Florida’s biggest losses was firing Gallant and leaving him on the side of the road.

That decision paved the way for Gallant to join the Golden Knights and smash nearly every record by an expansion team ever.

Gallant has given his players the controls. Mistakes don’t mean less ice time. Gallant has inspired his team and doesn’t have them playing scared. It’s a perfect approach and one that’s evidently paid off.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Trotz is a great coach, but there’s just something about the spirited way Gallant has Vegas playing that simply cannot be denied. We’ve seen it all season and all playoffs.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
• Who has better special teams?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Looking to make the leap: Lawson Crouse

5 Comments

Hey, when you’re huge, you don’t need to make as much of a leap.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon didn’t do the usual hemming and hawing you’d expect when talking up Lawson Crouse, the 11th overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. Instead, he threw down the gauntlet after signing the sizable young prospect to an entry-level contract in July.

“He was one of our best players in development camp and we are confident he can make an immediate impact on our roster, playing on one of our top lines,” Tallon said via a Panthers release.

It’s not just Tallon pumping him up, either, as head coach Gerard Galland said that Crouse “will be given every opportunity to earn a top-six forward position on our roster during training camp.”

That’s quite the accelerated outlook for a towering 18-year-old (listed at 6-foot-4, 215 lbs) whose offense seemingly came up short at times; Crouse managed just 51 points in 56 games at the OHL level in 2014-15.

Such modest production would leave the impression that the Panthers might be wise to allow Crouse to marinate at the junior level for at least a little while, yet it sounds like the organization thinks he’s on the right track. Florida might be growing a touch impatient with the slow-and-steady approach, and one can also imagine that they see an “NHL body” in Crouse.

Of course, it’s not as if the Panthers are committed to a decision yet. They can change their mind during training camp or even through a few regular season contests and decide to let him develop at a slower pace with no harm done.

All disclaimers aside, it sounds like he’ll get a real chance to make the roster right out of the draft.

Want to know more about Crouse? Check out this profile.

Panthers’ Trocheck: ‘I was in the cab at 6:57 and on the ice by 7:04’

2 Comments

Vincent Trocheck thought he was a healthy scratch.

As a result, he was in no hurry to get to the Saddledome in Calgary Friday night where his Panthers’ teammates were getting set to play the Flames.

Panthers’ coach Gerard Gallant knew Dmitry Kulikov was going to miss the game with the flu; however, during the team’s pre-game skate, Aleksander Barkov also became ill.

The Panthers’ put out a call to Trocheck, who along with teammate Brandon Pirri, was still at the hotel.

“We left the hotel at 6:30, grabbed some dinner. Luckily I stayed light and got a salad,” Trocheck told George Richards of the Miami Herald. “There was a ton of traffic on the way here and we were going slow. Then they wouldn’t let us into the gate and we had to walk with all of our luggage.”

The 21-year-old made it to the Panthers’ bench just as the anthems were concluding.

He finished a plus-1 with two penalty minutes and 12:56 in ice time as the Panthers edged the Flames 6-5.

“I literally ran through the halls,” Trocheck said. “I was in the cab at 6:57 and on the ice by 7:04.”