SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are aiming for bounceback, and so is new head coach Gerard Gallant.
Eight years after being dismissed as the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach, Gallant is again calling the shots behind an NHL bench. Humbled by the experience of having to work his way back, the former player says he is excited about growing with a young Panthers franchise.
Florida general manager Dale Tallon introduced Gallant as the team’s 13th head coach Monday morning.
"The Columbus days, you look back at our record, I think I was 20 games under .500," Gallant said. "I think going back and getting fired from Columbus, I think, was real important."
Gallant spent a season as an assistant with the New York Islanders before accepting a position to coach the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
It was there he led the franchise to two QMJHL championships and a Memorial Cup victory. Among the youngsters he guided was Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau.
"I think this was a bonus that he went back to hone his craft and work with young guys," Tallon said. "It says a lot about him, after the Columbus situation, going back to junior. Not many guys would have done that. He went back and worked his way back up to the position that he’s in today."
Gallant moved on to join the Montreal Canadiens as an assistant and took on the task of molding two of the team’s top young talents, Alexander Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who finished second behind Huberdeau in Calder Trophy voting.
When the Panthers parted ways with interim coach Peter Horachek in May, it was believed they would seek a candidate with significant head coaching experience, possibly one with a Stanley Cup on his resume.
But Gallant’s proven success in developing young players gave him an edge.
The Panthers had eight players under 23 on their roster this past season and boast a system stocked with talent. That doesn’t even account for the five picks — including this year’s first overall selection — Tallon has in the coming draft and the 10 he’s stockpiled for next season.
Finding a coach who had the ability to mentor young players was equally as important as one who could work with veterans.
"Kids are kind of impressionable at this age, and we’ve got a lot of them," Tallon said. "We’ve got to get them refocused and accountable, too."
One player excited to see Gallant join the Panthers is Huberdeau, who shared the rookie scoring title in 2012 but endured a difficult sophomore season.
"Sometimes it doesn’t go well, but he would come talk to you," Huberdeau said of Gallant’s off-ice mentoring. "He’d make sure you’re playing hockey, keeping it simple. That’s what all the guys need. A lot of guys, as you know, had ups and downs, and we need a coach that is going to help us get through that."
Gallant believes a quick turnaround is possible for Florida. During his stint in Montreal, the Canadiens went from finishing 27th in the league to just a couple of victories from advancing to the Stanley Cup final in June.
And having faced the Panthers four times last season, Gallant got a glimpse of what the franchise’s youngsters are capable of.
"I think in two of those games they beat us, and they really outplayed us," Gallant said. "They really played hard. There are a lot of good building blocks with this hockey team. I know their season wasn’t very good last season, but from the games we played against them, to see the way the team played against us in those two games, they were outstanding."
Florida is committed to Gallant for three seasons, and with many of its players years away from unrestricted free agency, growing as a unit is the first step in establishing stability and an improved reputation around the league.
"It’s a perfect scenario," Tallon said. "They can all grow together. That’s what it’s all about. All of us have to grow and get better at our jobs."