The Vegas Golden Knights made a surprise move on Wednesday, firing the only coach in their franchise’s history, Gerard Gallant, in favour of former San Jose Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.
Sure, their franchise has only been in existence for two-and-a-half seasons, but that’s part of what makes it so shocking. The Golden Knights went straight to the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team in their first season and went to Game 7 with the 101-point San Jose Sharks in their second season, all under Gallant’s leadership.
At the time of Gallant’s firing, the Golden Knights were just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division. Though the firing came after a four-game losing streak, Vegas had a four-game winning streak just before that, including wins over Western Conference rivals that are ahead of them in the standings, the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues.
Less than two years ago, Gallant won the Jack Adams Award. Now he’s unemployed.
In theory, the Jack Adams award is meant to go to the best coach in the nhl, but that’s not really how it works in practice. Instead, it generally goes to the coach of the team that exceeded expectations the most.
The trouble with awarding someone for exceeding expectations is that eventually the expectations get too high to exceed.
Jack Adams winners have a surprisingly high tendency to lose their jobs not long after winning the award, with Gallant the latest example. Bob Hartley won in 2015 after going from 77 points the previous season to 97 points with the Calgary Flames. He was fired the following year after the Flames dropped back down to 77 points.
Patrick Roy won the Jack Adams in his first year of NHL coaching when the Colorado Avalanche went from missing the playoffs in 2013 to finishing first in the Western Conference in 2014. He resigned after missing the playoffs the next two seasons and found himself forced out of a decision-maker role by Joe Sakic.
Paul MaLean won the 2013 Jack Adams after guiding an injury-plagued Ottawa Senators team to the playoffs. After a shaky start to the 2014-15 season, MacLean was fired.
Then there’s the curious case of Barry Trotz. Trotz won the Jack Adams last season with the New York Islanders, but he previously won it in 2016 with the Washington Capitals after winning a Presidents’ Trophy with a 120-point season. Two years later, he took the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final and won the whole shebang.
Less than two weeks after winning the Stanley Cup, Trotz left the Capitals because they wouldn’t meet his contract demands. For some reason, he wanted to be paid like he was one of the best coaches in the NHL, possibly because he had won an award that said he was one.
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that Jack Adams winners swiftly find themselves out of a job, but it seems odd that teams are frequently so quick to rid themselves of such great coaches.
Part of it is that NHL coaches get fired with frightening regularity in general. Just look at the Pacific Division: Travis Green, on the job for less than three years, is now the longest-tenured coach in the Pacific. In fact, he has the 10th longest tenure of any coach in the entire NHL.
It’s a lot easier, when things go wrong, for a GM to fire a coach than fix the underlying problems that are lkely based on his own work building the roster.
The other issue, however, is that since the Jack Adams tends to go to coaches of teams that radically exceed expectations, it’s not just an award for the coach: it’s an award for good luck.
A lot has to go right for a team to exceed expectations. Typically, a team has to avoid major injuries. You need forwards and defencemen to have career years with assistance from some good bounces. And, more than anything, you need good goaltending.
The trouble is that goaltending can be fickle, as can good fortune. What happens when things don’t go right for that same team, whose expectations are suddenly a lot higher? What happens when injuries strike, a sniper goes cold, and a defenceman loses a step?
What happens when a goaltender goes from a .927 save percentage in your Jack Adams-winning year to a .906 save percentage two seasons later?
That last one isn’t a hypothetical. Marc-Andre Fleury was phenomenal for the Golden Knights in their inaugural season, with a .927 save percentage in the regular season, then continued that same strong performance in the playoffs, carrying the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final with that same .927 save percentage.
This season, he’s struggled, with a save percentage below league average at .906. To make matters worse, the Golden Knights don’t have a reliable backup, with Malcolm Subban posting an ugly .898 save percentage behind Fleury.
That has helped sink a strong Golden Knights team. If we look at their underlying stats, the Golden Knights look like one of the strongest teams in the NHL. Here are their score and venue-adjusted 5-on-5 numbers and NHL rank via Natural Stat Trick:
- Corsi (shot attempt) percentage: 53.36% (4th)
- Fenwick (unblocked shot attempt) percentage: 53.44% (3rd)
- Shots on goal percentage: 52.71% (6th)
- Expected Goals percentage: 54.57% (3rd)
- Scoring Chance percentage: 55.17% (2nd)
Then you get to their team save percentage at 5-on-5: .910, which is 25th in the NHL. As a result of their goaltending, along with a below-average shooting percentage, their actual goals percentage is 48.00%, 22nd in the NHL.
Those familiar with analytics will know about PDO, which is a stat that combines save percentage and shooting percentage as a measure of luck. Since shooting percentages and save percentages average out to 1.000 at the league level — 100% of shots are either saves or goals — any team that is significantly above this mark is some combination of talented and lucky. Likewise, any team significantly below 1.000 is some combination of untalented and unlucky.
The Golden Knights have a .985 PDO. Only three teams — the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Detroit Red Wings — have a worse PDO.
That means the Golden Knights are likely to get better, as regression hits and their shooting and save percentages veer closer to average. Some will credit this improvement to the coaching change.
Then again, there’s an argument to be made that the relationship is the other way around: the poor goaltending didn’t contribute to the coaching change, but the coaching contributed to the poor goaltending
Kevin Woodley, in his always-excellent segment on TSN 1040, suggested that there are some elements not captured by analytics like corsi and expected goals where the Golden Knights are struggling and that Gallant didn’t adjust.
“When Fleury came back and [Vegas] went on a run, he was one of the top-three goaltenders in the league when you look at adjusted numbers,” said Woodley about their first season. “They lean heavily on the goaltending and now the goaltending is just about average and the results aren’t there.”
That’s not the whole story, though, according to Woodley.
“The way they defended, it cost them the Stanley Cup Final,” he said. “The Washington Capitals specifically attacked laterally on them and as soon as you got them to give up lateral chances, Fleury was dead because they want their goaltenders planted well outside the crease. As fast as he is, he was the only one in their organization that could sort of overcome that direction, that preference.
“When they didn’t defend it, he was toast. When Washington wrote the book on it in the playoffs, other teams have since gone to school and his numbers have come down, and I haven’t seen any adjustment from the coaching staff in terms of that philosophy and that goes right down to the goaltending coach.”
“If his team doesn’t defend those chances,” concluded Woodley, “his goaltenders don’t have a chance.”
Woodley declared that he wasn’t shocked that Gallant got fired, simply because they were far too reliant on their goaltending and specifically gave up chances that relied on an aging Fleury to make acrobatic saves.
That raises another question: if Gallant hadn't been so successful in his first year with the Golden Knights, hadn't taken them to the Stanley Cup Final where they would be subject to intense scrutiny by opposing coaches, would that same flaw in his system have been revealed? Would teams pick them apart with lateral passing in the same way if the Capitals hadn't done it first?
Gallant is arguably a victim of his own success.
Perhaps the Golden Knights were right to fire Gallant. Perhaps they believe that Peter DeBoer can install a system that cinches up the gaps in their defensive coverage and makes them less reliant on having incredible goaltending to succeed.
“In order for our team to reach its full potential, we determined a coaching change was necessary,” said general manager Kelly McCrimmon in a press release. “Our team is capable of more than we have demonstrated this season.”
It remains to be seen if that’s true.