By Bill Whitehead
Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has had a major task at hand since the Cats closed a miserable season that left them with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference, primarily because of a defense with as many holes in it as a bullet-riddled car after a mob hit and an offense that simply couldn’t shoot straight.
Tallon’s task is four-part, and as of Saturday afternoon, the first two steps were officially in the books.
The first move was a quick one, the firing of Peter Horachek shortly after the season ended. His sacking was timely and had a clean-cut, surgical precision to it. There was no hemming or hawing over keeping Horachek, a class act who did his best in a tough situation by coming onboard when Kevin Dineen was released early in the season. Initially during Horachek’s reign, the Cats had jump and appeared improved, perhaps trying to impress their new bench boss. But over a larger sample in the long haul, Florida was just as bad with Horachek. Losing talented rookie Aleksander Barkov to injury was an unfair loss, but the special teams were atrocious, particularly the power play, which had no leader, no quarterback, no direction and just appeared a pointless waste of two minutes.
That description of the power play also described Horachek’s coaching tenure – aimless and floundering at sea with no way of getting back to shore. Tallon had to let Horachek go. Florida fans are unsure of the new hire, Prince Edward Island’s Gerard Gallant, but how deflating would it have been to start camp in a few months under the helm of Horachek, who had accomplished so little? At least there’s a sense of “Hey, maybe Gallant can be the guy” and provide stability for a club that’s had 13 coaches over two decades.
Imagine how critical the media and fans would have been of an organization that kept Horachek as coach and failed to make a run in the offseason at Dan Bylsma, Gallant and other fine candidates like Bill Peters and Willie Desjardins.
The hiring of Gallant, 50, was a meticulous process that kept dragging out, leaving many feeling like they were watching some cliffhanger episode of their favorite TV show each day. Most wanted ex-Pens coach Bylsma. True, he would have brought a strong pedigree and perhaps giving Florida an inside track during free agency with players like Jussi Jokinen, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, but it just didn’t work out, whether he asked for too much money or Florida held the purse strings too tightly. There’s a strong chance Bylsma won’t be coaching at all next season, and Vancouver and Pittsburgh still have no coach.
So bringing in Gallant – step 2 of the rebuilding process (I hate that word, let’s go with “the strengthening process” because this isn’t really a rebuild) – was also the right call. From every account I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, Gallant is nothing but a winner and a player’s coach. Sure, he didn’t win in Columbus, but Scotty Bowman wouldn’t have been successful coaching that bad roster for an organization in flux at the time. As I tweeted yesterday, there’s a sense that Gallant’s players will do anything for him – run through a wall for him – and that feeling wasn’t prevalent with the Cats as they skated through the motions under Horachek.
Gallant is also intense and fiery yet humble. In all I’ve encountered, I’ve heard nothing negative, no “Watch out when he does this” or “He gets over his head when …” warnings. Former players and coaches, including P.K. Subban and Doug MacLean, have been effusive in their praise of Gallant. And fans of the Canadiens have lamented losing him on the bench.
So it’s two steps down, two to go for Tallon.
The third will take place at the draft in Philadelphia, where the GM will do everything he can to fortify this team. He will likely do it by selecting one exceptional prospect like Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart or Sam Bennett with the top pick or another in a trade, maybe with a Canadian team that covets one of those three and is willing to give up a handsome bounty for him. The final step starts July 1 with free agency, just three days after the draft.
For now, Tallon’s 2-for-2 and batting a thousand in the offseason.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com