Krupa: Gallant’s success with Vegas raises questions about Wings’ plan

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Coming out of Prince Edward Island and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gerard Gallant arrived in town in 1985, debuting for the Red Wings against the Islanders on January 22.

They were not much of a club.

But Gallant scored in the second period of a 5-4 victory, And the Red Wings snapped a 12-game winless streak.

The Dead Things were like that. They earned their nickname.

A career ending back injury in practice forced his retirement at 32, at the start of the 1995-96 season, the Wings 41nd in a row without a Stanley Cup.

Gallant’s former line mate, Steve Yzerman, lifted the cup in Joe Louis Arena the following season.

“They were positive memories,” Gallant said. “I had nine years here, at The Joe. It was excellent.

“I enjoyed every minute of it. The organization was top notch.

“And, when I first started, the team was really bad and, when I left the team was real good.”

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Gallant did not solely author all the improvement of the Red Wings in those years. A raft of future Hockey Hall of Fame members and other good players, and Scotty Bowman, turned perennial has-beens into a franchise that won four Stanley Cups in 12 years.

But the arc of the Wings in is playing career adds to Gallant’s reputation as a coach capable of improving hockey teams.

The Panthers went from sixth in the Atlantic Division to first in one season, and Gallant won the Jack Adams Award.

Unceremoniously fired 21 games into last season, Gallant remained without a head coaching job in the NHL from November 27, 2016 to April 13, 2017.

Hiring Gallant is one of many correct decisions made by GM George McPhee and the Golden Knights, as they prepared more successfully than any team in NHL history for their first season as an expansion team.

“A player’s coach,” Gallant also is a winner.

The Golden Knights, leading the Pacific Division by nine points and the third-best team in the NHL, entering play Thursday. They are more evidence that Gallant is among the better head coaches in the league.

He is not perfect, of course.

He told me twice Tomas Jurco would “certainly” score in the NHL. It has not happened, yet.

And it would have been a move akin to Sparky Anderson taking over the developing Tigers one-third of the way through the 1978 season for Les Moss, who had coached many of the young Tigers in the minors, but the Red Wings had four-and-a-half months to hire Gallant.

But Gallant is not a championship coach, like Anderson winning with the Reds. And, regardless, it certainly was not part of the Red Wings’ plans, then.

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Few NHL coaches are prepared by franchise like the Red Wings prepared Jeff Blashill to succeed Mike Babcock.

After Babcock brought Blashill to the Red Wings in 2011, the next season they put Blashill behind the bench in Grand Rapids, where players were developing to compete later in the decade.

Nearly six-years later, Blashill continues to develop players the Red Wings hope are their stars of the future.

Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are improved players. Nick Jensen is improving as the season goes on.

Other projects are in place.

But, in the last quarter of what looks like a second consecutive losing season out of the playoffs, the Wings will decide whether Blashill deserves the fourth season of his contract.

If he comes back next season, the organization will likely face another similar decision on whether to offer him a new contract.

Given the state of the roster, with development likely to remain the focus for seasons to come, it is hard to see how the Wings performance improves markedly next season, at this rate.

Especially with the possibility Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, could well be retired by after next season, one wonders if a veteran NHL presence might help.

A coach more like Gallant, with his deep experience behind the bench in the NHL and at developmental levels of the game and well as out on the ice might be the ticket for a group of comparatively inexperienced Red Wings, with more likely on the way.

Or, the Red Wings may well decide that Blashill, with his extensive experience with the current personnel and having essentially specialized in developing players since 1999, when he became an assistant at Ferris State, is still a valuable guy to have.

Certainly, Blashill’s job is the toughest of any Red Wings coach in 30 years – since Gallant first skated shotgun on Yzerman’s wing, in fact.

But the perpetual lack of improvement in the performance of the team over the last two seasons raises questions.

And when a fine coach of an entirely different lineage, who might as well have red winged-wheel tattooed to his fanny, comes back to town, with a high-flying team that came from nowhere, it stirs questions about whether a coach more like Gallant than Blashill makes sense for the franchise, at this juncture.

Asked if he handled the pre-season and the first part of the season differently because the Golden Knights are an expansion club, Gallant looked at the questioner with a tired coach’s eyes, smiled gently, and said, “Not one thing different.

“Everything was the exact same.

“I knew we had a lot of different players coming in,” Gallant said, in his French-tinged English. “But, day one, our coaching staff just said we’re going to do the same thing we did in Florida, the same thing I did in Columbus when I was a coach.

“And, you know, nothing changes.”