June 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Former Red Wing Gerard Gallant eager to tackle challenges as Panthers' boss

Gerard Gallant on the Panthers: 'I think it's a great opportunity and I'm looking forward to working with this hockey club.' (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

Sunrise, Fla. — Gerard Gallant needed no sales pitch from the Florida Panthers.

He’s aware that they have not won a playoff series in nearly two decades, that they missed the playoffs by a mile last season and that they change coaches on an all-too-regular basis.

None of that deterred him, either.

“You look at their roster, you look at their team, you look at their core players,” said Gallant, who played for the Red Wings from 1984-93. “I think it’s a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to working with this hockey club.”

He now has that chance, after being introduced as the 13th coach in Panthers’ history and the team’s eighth bench boss since 2003.

Gallant hasn’t been an NHL head coach since 2006, but has plenty of experience as an assistant and a very successful stint as the head coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. His best player there was current Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who’s considered a key part of Florida’s plan to turn things around.

“Of course I was excited to hear that news,” Huberdeau said of his reaction to Gallant’s hiring. “Gerard has been a great coach for me. He taught me a lot of stuff when I was in juniors and it’s because of him that I’m in the NHL right now.”

When Gallant and Huberdeau were paired in juniors, their team won just about every night, or so it seemed.

No one’s expecting that in Florida, but some parallels will exist from that team and now, Gallant said.

“Jonathan’s a great kid,” Gallant said. “I knew the kid for three years and we worked well together. We’re going to have 23 players who are going to work hard and compete.”

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon called the search exhaustive, and the team was linked to plenty of other candidates throughout the two-month process, most notably the likes of Peter Laviolette, Barry Trotz and Dan Bylsma.

When he met with Gallant, Tallon expected him to be in a downtrodden mood — the first interview was two days after the Montreal Canadiens, with whom Gallant was an assistant coach the past two seasons, were eliminated from this year’s playoffs.

Instead, Gallant was high-energy, eager, excited. Tallon was impressed.

“I’ve never heard a negative word said about Gerard Gallant in any capacity in hockey,” Tallon said.

It’s the start of a hectic time for Florida, which holds the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft — one they could trade away — and is expected to be a busy player when free agency begins July 1.

And Gallant knows very well how quickly things can turn around. When he was hired as an assistant in Montreal, the Canadiens were coming off a season where they finished with the fewest points in the East. With Gallant on the staff, the Canadiens won a division title in 2012-13, and topped the 100-point mark in the standings last season.

The Panthers would enjoy nothing more than him being part of a similar turnaround in Florida.

“The league is so close,” Gallant said. “The teams are so close together now.”