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Gerard Gallant, Golden Knights have clean slate

Coach, Vegas expansion team put faith in each other to build winner

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The NHL officially awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise on June 22. Later that day, not far from the to-be-named team's future home, T-Mobile Arena, it held the NHL Awards. Gerard Gallant of the Florida Panthers was the runner-up for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

Now Gallant is the coach of the Vegas Golden Knights.

A lot still has to happen before the Golden Knights open their inaugural season in October: the NHL Expansion Draft June 21, the 2017 NHL Draft June 23-24 and free agency beginning July 1. But look at how far they have come in a matter of months.

"We're putting every piece in place, just as I told you we would some months ago, and we're going to do our very best to bring a winner to Las Vegas," owner Bill Foley said Thursday, when Gallant was introduced.

This is a leap of faith for Gallant and the Golden Knights.

Gallant reportedly had a chance to coach the New York Islanders and could have waited for a chance to coach another established team, yet he chose to coach a team without knowing who his players will be. The Golden Knights have signed one junior free agent. That's it.

The Golden Knights chose to hire someone known more for being a players' coach than a strategist, when the coach will have to squeeze the most out of limited talent at first, probably through structure and defense.

But this is an incredible opportunity for both, because this is a blank slate.

"If there's anything we've learned here already, it's a lot easier to create a culture and build a culture than to change one, and I think that's what appeals to all of us a great deal," general manager George McPhee said.

Gallant joined an organization that starts with a committed, ambitious owner. Foley and his partners didn't pay a $500 million expansion fee to lose. Foley has stated that he wants to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three years and win the Cup in six.

T-Mobile Arena is new and in the heart of the action on the Strip. A new state-of-the-art practice facility is under construction. Foley hired an experienced GM in McPhee, and McPhee has hired an experienced staff.

Gallant must trust that McPhee and his staff will give him the players he will need to succeed. They need to give him enough runway to take off too. When a reporter asked about Foley's timeline of three years to make the playoffs, Gallant said that was the first he had heard of it.

"Hopefully that happens," Gallant said.

The Golden Knights hired a coach who was really hitting his stride in the NHL. McPhee tended to hire inexperienced coaches as GM of the Washington Capitals from 1997-2014, but he wanted an experienced one in Vegas. He said coaches often were better in their second and third NHL jobs.

Gallant was an assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2000-01. He became coach in the 2003-04 season and was fired after 15 games of the 2006-07 season, going 56-76-4 with the Blue Jackets.

After three seasons with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and a Memorial Cup, he spent two seasons as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens. He became coach of the Panthers on June 21, 2014.

"I had a lot more confidence," he said. "I coached 2 1/2 years in Columbus. Was I ready at that time to coach? I'm not sure. You make your decisions, but you're not 100 percent sure in them. The second time around when I started to coach, I felt great from the first day. I was confident in every decision I had to make."

Gallant went 38-29-15 his first season in Florida. He went 47-26-9 in his second, setting Panthers records for wins and points (103), leading Florida to the playoffs for the first time in four years, and earning that Jack Adams consideration. When he was fired Nov. 27, the Panthers were 11-9-1. It was more about changes in the front office and philosophical differences. 

"At that time, it didn't seem right." Gallant said. 

The players were not pleased. 

"I love Turk," Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said at the time, calling Gallant by his nickname. "Great guy. Great coach for me."

The Panthers went 24-27-10 under GM/coach Tom Rowe and missed the playoffs. Dale Tallon, who hired Gallant and was bumped upstairs, is GM again.

"I think confidence is a big thing," Gallant said. "I lost a little confidence when I got fired, but two weeks later, I was ready to go again."

He should be raring to go now, even though he doesn't have the likes of Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov or Aaron Ekblad, at least not yet.

The coach who won the Jack Adams last season was Washington's Barry Trotz, who began his NHL coaching career with the expansion Nashville Predators in 1998-99. He had a good relationship with GM David Poile, and he helped build a perennial playoff team and grow the game in a new market over 15 years. He also got fired and has thrived in a new job.

Trotz's advice?

"It's fresh, and you're going to have an opportunity to lay a real strong foundation," Trotz said. "So do it your way. Have fun with it. It is a completely different experience than anything else." staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this report.

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