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Tom Rowe facing higher expectations for Panthers

Florida coach, who replaced Gerard Gallant, needs to reach next level to back up bold move

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

CHICAGO -- If you're going to fire a coach like Gerard Gallant -- a bold, surprising, unpopular move -- you better have a good reason. You'd better make an upgrade.

Now that we've heard the Florida Panthers' rationale for removing Gallant on Sunday, it appears they did have a good reason: The front office and coach had philosophical differences. When general manager Tom Rowe takes over as coach against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; CSN-CH, FS-F, NHL.TV), the front office and coach will be aligned.

But will Rowe be an upgrade?

Rowe, 60, has NHL experience as a player and an assistant coach. He has been a head coach in the minors and in Russia. But he has never been a head coach in the NHL before. He has to get the players to buy in, when by all accounts they liked Gallant, a player's coach. He has to take the Panthers further.

"Our ownership is completely committed to winning a Stanley Cup," Panthers president and chief executive officer Matthew Caldwell said on a conference call Monday.

Owner Vincent Viola made the final decision and the phone call to Gallant after a 3-2 loss at the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday. He's going to expect strides toward a championship.

"It's a different year, and expectations are higher than they were the year before," Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon said.

Gallant did not deserve to be fired based on performance. He received a two-year contract extension Jan. 2 and guided the Panthers to the most wins (47) and points (103) in their history last season. He got them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.

The Panthers lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round but outplayed the Islanders for much of the series.

They're 11-10-1 this season, two points out of a playoff spot, in better shape than they were at this point last season, even though the front office overhauled the defense in the offseason and the roster has been hampered by injuries. Three top-nine forwards have missed significant time: Jonathan Huberdeau (all 22 games), Nick Bjustad (19) and Jussi Jokinen (10).

"I'm disappointed for him," said Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who spent the past five seasons with the Panthers. "I feel bad for him. I don't know. They're above .500. No team's where they want to be, but he's done some good things there. I know the guys liked him. So it's kind of shocking."

But this decision wasn't based on whether Gallant deserved it. Other than inconsistency early this season, it was based on how Gallant fit into the bigger picture.

Gallant was hired by Tallon when Tallon was GM, and Rowe became GM after last season. Eric Joyce and Steve Werier rose from within to become assistant GMs.

The Panthers have placed an emphasis on analytics. Rowe said it was part of their process, not all of it, and Gallant wasn't totally against it. But there was more to it.

"There was definitely a philosophical divide, you could call it," Rowe said. "We wanted to develop a team and build a team that was fast, could move the puck quickly, attack the offensive net, pressure the puck in all three zones. Gerard and I talked about it, and he said he wanted to get a little more size, and we decided to go in a different direction. Were we on the same page every day of the week? No, when it came to that."

That is enough to make a change, for the sake of Gallant as well as the Panthers, and perhaps it wasn't clear until recently, based on the timing of the move. Gallant deserves to be in a situation in which he fits and no doubt will find one elsewhere; the Panthers need everyone on the same page every day of the week.

"I think you've got to let guys go out there and do their jobs a little bit," Campbell said. "And if that's the case, then it's kind of tough to do your job when that's what they hired you for and you're kind of not doing it."

Rowe will keep the GM title but concentrate on coaching while the rest of the front office handles the GM duties. He was to meet with the leadership group in the afternoon Monday, an off day for the players, and the Panthers before the game Tuesday.

The changes he will make aren't vague. They're specific: defensive-zone coverage, higher tempo in practices and games, stronger net-front presence on the power play and adjustments to the forecheck on the penalty kill. The Panthers special teams were not strong under Gallant last season or this season. Rowe noted they cost the Panthers in the playoffs.

"This team is built for speed and skill," Rowe said. "That's the way the National Hockey League is going. All you have to do is watch what Pittsburgh did last season [when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup], the way they played. The way they attack the puck and the way they made every step of the opponent difficult by pressuring is how we want to play. It's a fun way to play. The players like playing that way. That's what the fans want to watch."

Can Rowe get the Panthers to play that way? Can he live up to those higher expectations?

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