Hiring Gerard Gallant Means Rangers Are in Win-Now Mode for Next Season

Abbey MastraccoContributor IIJune 15, 2021

Canada's head coach Gerard Gallant stands behind his bench during the Ice Hockey World Championship semifinal match between the United States and Canada at the Arena in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, June 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Sergei Grits/Associated Press

New York Rangers executive chairman James Dolan cleaned house this spring because he felt the club's general manager, team president and head coach weren't going to get the team to the playoffs. 

"Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup," Dolan said in an interview with the New York Post. "I'm sure we can always do better and add more, and I will tell you that both [John Davidson and Jeff Gorton] did a good job of putting talent into this organization, and we also got lucky along the way too [with lottery victories the last two years]."

So he hired a coach for a win-now team. But are the Rangers ready? Is the rebuild complete? Whether or not the roster is built to win next season, Gerard Gallant's hiring signals the Rangers' intent to contend. 

The team reportedly made the move Monday afternoon, per Larry Brooks, having fired its previous coach, David Quinn, in May after three seasons. New York brought in Quinn to help develop the young core during the early stages of the rebuild, and he bridged the gap to Gallant, the premier bench boss on the market. 

Gallant is coming off a gold-medal coaching performance in the IIHF World Championships, leading Canada over Finland in Latvia earlier this month. It was a notable accomplishment, considering Team Canada started the tournament 0-3, but Gallant's resume extends well beyond one international tournament. He's best known for leading the upstart Vegas Golden Knights to an improbable Stanley Cup Final berth in 2017-18, the club's inaugural season. 

Gallant is 270-216-4-51 as an NHL head coach after stints with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers and Golden Knights. Yet he's also been fired twice during a season with good teams. 

The Panthers kicked him to the curb in November 2016. The images of him with his bags outside a hotel on a road trip with the team after an 11-10-0-1 start proved to be some terrible optics for the team but good PR for Gallant, who bounced back quickly with the Golden Knights. 

Gord Miller 🏳️‍🌈 @GMillerTSN

The image of the Panthers firing Gerard Gallant and leaving him behind on the road is going to linger over that franchise for a while. https://t.co/U7z6aJlLtF

And yet, less than three seasons into his stint with a team that is looking more and more like a juggernaut, he was surprisingly let go with a 24-19-0-6 record. Peter DeBoer, a coach he once called a "clown," replaced him.

The Knights are in the semifinal round for the second straight year, and while management deserves much of the credit for building this team, Gallant undoubtedly laid its framework. This is a copycat league, and DeBoer likely knew he was inheriting a structured club. Sure, it's a different voice and maybe some tweaks occurred, but most teams run some variation of the same power play, the same penalty kill, neutral-zone systems, etc. 

It makes you wonder just how important an NHL head coach actually is as far as X's and O's. That's not to diminish their role, but to say a coach is all that's standing between a team and a championship is a romantic notion. Gallant is a good coach because of what he gets out of players, how he manages his dressing room and how he relates to his players. 

Adam Herman @AdamZHerman

Something I've spoken to a few people about recently is the idea that, in the NHL, it's a lot more important to not have a bad coach than it is to have a good coach. I think Gallant is certainly not a bad coach. Perfectly good hire for the Rangers.

By all accounts, Gallant is effective at managing these aspects of a team, as the overwhelming sentiment is that he is a great guy and a great coach. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Gallant emphasized a balance in being there for players but also holding them accountable. 

"I'm tough, but I'm fair … that's the way I look at myself, anyway," Gallant told Aaron Portzline. "Some people call me a players' coach, and you hear people say, 'We don't need a players' coach.' Well, I'm a hard-ass, too, when I need to be, when the situation calls for it."

Gallant's teams also typically play with grit. The Rangers had little of it last season, so Gallant addresses that. 

When Vegas fired him, the underlying numbers showed the team was very good but suffering from bad luck. The Golden Knights' goals-for percentage ranked 22nd, but their expected goals-for percentage was actually second in the NHL. Some say you create your own luck in hockey; some say the puck just doesn't favor you. The answer is somewhere in between, but it's clear from those numbers the team was generating offense. 

It's not a scorching take to say Gallant was the right hire for the Rangers. Kris Knoblauch, the coach of the team's AHL affiliate in Hartford, might have been a good choice as well because he could've grown alongside the team's youthful core. The top prospects have a familiarity with him, and he knows the foundational aspects of the Rangers' systems.

Would he have been any better than Quinn? We'll never know, but it's clear from the seasoned coaches the club targeted that the Rangers feel ready to move past the development phase and move into the playoff phase. 

Which is fine. The club has been building since the spring of 2018 when it issued The Letter to fans detailing its intentions for the next few years. The Rangers wanted to rebuild the right way, and it worked: They have one of the best, if the not the best, prospect pools in the country. They also have a group of talented young players on their NHL roster, like 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and 2020 No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere, as well as other strong supporting cast members in that same age range, such as defensemen Adam Fox, 23, and K'Andre Miller, 21. 

Kaapo Kakko
Kaapo KakkoPaul Sancya/Associated Press/Associated Press

And yes, the Blueshirts have one of hockey's most prolific scorers in winger Artemi Panarin, plus a strong leadership group with Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba. No one is doubting the talent. But it's still not a roster that is ready to compete for a Stanley Cup. 

There are questions about the two young goalies, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, both 25. There are big questions on the back end of the blue line and regarding the forward depth. And Lafreniere and Kakko have been inconsistent at best. 

Maybe Gallant can unlock their potential. Based on what he did in Vegas, it's clear he knows how to get a mix of players to play as a cohesive unit. But maybe they're still just…young. 

They better grow up fast, because the patience for the rebuild appears to be wearing thin. 

When Dolan fired general manager Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson, he was unhappy with the lack of progress since the rebuild began. Chris Drury, the associate general manager who was elevated to president and general manager, said the next step is becoming a postseason squad. 

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

"I think it's an exciting time for the organization," Drury said in May during his introductory press conference. "Just like every organization does when the season ends, we're going to take a look at everything to take the next step and make ourselves a playoff team."

Gallant can help them get to the postseason. The Rangers were probably monitoring the situations of a few other coaches, like Mike Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Rod Brind'Amour of the Carolina Hurricanes, because every other team in need of a coach is also monitoring those situations. But Gallant was the right move at the right time.

It's a big hiring in what it conveys to the fanbase (the team is ready to contend), yet one that is seemingly at odds with the roster (not there yet).

So what's a realistic expectation for the Rangers under Gallant? They will get better and be competitive in the Metropolitan Division. To expect a Stanley Cup in 2022 would be a reach, though. 

Progress will be made. But if Dolan and Rangers fans anticipate a lot of it overnight, they should temper their expectations.