This has been the season of coaching changes, but perhaps the most surprising bench boss to be shown the door is Gerard Gallant. On Wednesday, the Vegas Golden Knights replaced Gallant with Pete DeBoer, making it the first coaching change in the franchise’s young history.
Gallant’s removal is surprising both because of his past success and Vegas’ present position. He received a lot of credit for guiding Vegas to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their expansion season and won the Jack Adams Award in recognition of that. The 2018-19 campaign didn’t recapture the same magic, but Vegas was nevertheless a strong team with a 43-32-7 record. This season has been similarly solid. Vegas was 24-19-6 at the time of Gallant’s firing, which does put them ever so slightly out of a playoff position, but that’s only because of how tight the competition is right now. Even with Vegas narrowly outside of the playoffs, the Golden Knights are a mere three points away from first place in the Pacific Division, so the situation is far from dire.
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Still, GM Kelly McCrimmon feels the time to act was now and he chose to replace Gallant with DeBoer. McCrimmon argued that the Golden Knights are capable of more than they’re demonstrated this season. Whether DeBoer is the guy to get Vegas to find that extra level remains to be seen. DeBoer definitely comes with a long resume. He’s posted a 415-329-111 record and has reached the Stanley Cup Final twice, once with the Devils in 2012 and once with the Sharks in 2016. Both of those runs were in DeBoer’s first season with those franchises, so perhaps DeBoer’s message works best when it’s fresh. That said, it’s also worth noting that DeBoer was available in the first place because he was unable to get the Sharks to play up to their potential this season and was himself fired after they posted a 15-16-2 record.
There have now been seven in-season coaching firings this season, which is an extension of an era of frequent coaching changes. As Frank Seravalli noted for TSN, Joel Quenneville has coached in 45 games with Florida and that makes him the 18th longest-tenured coach out of 31. That highlights the rate of turnover as well as anything.
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As an aside, Gallant’s firing also means he’s being replaced as the Pacific Division coach in the All-Star Game. Arizona bench boss Rick Tocchet is taking his place.
Moving on from Vegas, another major event over the past week was Tuukka Rask sustaining a concussion on Tuesday when he was struck in the head by Blue Jackets forward Emil Bemstrom's elbow. The Bruins have since moved Rask to the Injured Reserve list, so he should be expected to miss the Bruins’ final three games before the All-Star break. The only silver lining is that after the Bruins’ final pre-ASB game on Jan. 21st they won’t have to play again until Jan 31st, so Rask might end up missing significantly fewer games than he would have had this injury occurred at another point of the season. However, with a concussion it’s never clear how long a player will be sidelined for and we certainly can’t predict with any degree of confidence that Rask will be okay to play on Jan. 31st.
The injury also comes at a time when Jaroslav Halak has been struggling, allowing at least three goals in each of his last four starts. Although, even with those struggles calculated, Halak is having a solid season and certainly it’s to the Bruins benefit that they have a strong backup goaltender to help them through times like these.
It also helps that Boston is in a pretty strong position, though it’s not as secure as it once was. With a 27-9-12 record, Boston has a six-point edge in the Atlantic Division race, but Tampa Bay is surging and has played in two fewer games than the Bruins. In other words, the Bruins might find themselves out of the division lead if they struggle during Rask’s absence. It doesn’t help that Boston’s been something of a mixed bag for a while now. From Dec. 5th onward, they’ve posted a 7-6-7 record. Over the same span, Tampa Bay has gone 15-5-1 and Toronto, which sits in third place in the Atlantic, is 12-3-2. Boston gave itself a huge lead early in the season, but the Bruins have been letting that erode for a while now.
We’ve also seen a major signing lately. On Tuesday the Capitals inked Nicklas Backstrom to a five-year, $46 million contract extension. Backstrom had come with a very team-friendly $6.7 million annual cap hit, but starting next season that will jump to $9.2 million. Washington’s cap situation will be pretty tight next season, which will make re-signing Braden Holtby over the summer all the more challenging. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprising if they instead opt to let Holtby walk and use Ilya Samsonov as their starting goaltender in 2020-21. He’s certainly doing a great job auditioning for the gig this season with a 13-2-1 record, 2.11 GAA, and .925 save percentage in 17 games.
As for just evaluating Backstrom’s contract on its own, it seems reasonable. Backstrom has been an incredibly reliable player, recording at least 70 points in each of the last six seasons and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him reach that milestone again in 2019-20. He did turn 32-years-old back in November, so giving him a five-year deal is a bit of a risk, but given that he hasn’t had too many injury problems during his career and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, I think it’s worth it.