Monday, November 28, 2016

The new Lou in South Florida

Look, I have three generations of military service in my family tree to this day. I think people with military backgrounds can be extremely successful in sports (see Air Force veteran Gregg Popovich's record as coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs) but to run an entire sports organization along military lines is bizarre in 2016. After all, militaries can be very good at winning wars but the aftermath and being able to reorganize a society well itself went out the door once the Marshall Plan days were over. To wit Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anyone with half a brain think the various military invasions from various nations over the years have left either nation in a more stable state headed towards peaceful democracies? 

You! Yeah, you! You're going places.

That's why I'm confused as to what billionaire Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola is up to in South Florida. Look, I don't get the whole American obsession with one's alma mater. I do get wanting to work with friends and likeminded people although that can cut both ways. You don't want a bunch of yes men and women around you when you have to make the hard decisions.

Anyway, Viola has decide to surround himself with West Point graduates. That's his prerogative. Not sure how that equates with managing a hockey team but at least it's out-of-the-box thinking which is to be lauded in hockey. On the other hand, the '60s showed us athletes and a large part of Western society do not want the military involved in our daily lives at work. Although the U.S. military has modernized it is still a very hierarchical structure. Not that hockey isn't, but a buck private is not earning millions either. The NHL  is a totally different kettle bomb of fish.

Throw in the whole obsession with analytics the Panthers' owner loves because he made his billions using numbers to his advantage on Wall Street, and you have a great story developing, win or lose, in Sunrise, Florida. It certainly has not made the Cats as boring as their new Ottawa Senators lookalike uniforms are. 

Stick a white band under the crest, no one will notice the difference

But here's the rub after today's firing of coach Gerard Gallant--numbers are not people. It's fine to use "advanced" stats as a tool to shape your team. They just can't be the end-all and be-all just as the eye test can't be either. One of the key factors in finding the right player and coach for any team is character. I'm sure the Panthers say all the right things that they don't just rely on analytics, but Gallant's firing sure suggests otherwise.

According to the Panthers' PDO this season they are kind of smack dab in the middle of the pack. Their luck is neither good nor bad. They are pretty much where you'd expect them to be given the number of man games lost for their key players (Jussi Jokinen 12 GP, Nick Bjugstad 3 GP, and Jonathan Huberdeau hasn't even played this season). So changing coaches is trying to change that luck, I suppose. Or did management think the Panthers were the second coming of last season's Pittsburgh Penguins?

What the firing of Gallant shows most of the hockey world, and putting its rookie GM into the coaching seat, is Viola seems to be following another model. That would be one he saw maybe across the river from his Manhattan Wall Street offices--the Lou Lamoriello era in New Jersey

The Devils were notorious for changing coaches at will and at bizarre points in the season even just prior to the playoffs. Sometimes it worked . Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes Lou came down from his GM chair and stepped behind the bench. Sometimes he didn't. 

The New Jersey Devils won three Stanley Cups during Lou's GM reign. They also had the two Scotts (Stevens and Niedermayer) on defence. The Devils also never won a cup after Niedermayer left for Anaheim in 2004. Great players often make GMs look pretty great.

The Panthers do have a gem on defence in Aaron Ekblad so thank old-school Dale Tallon for that draft pick under his GM's watch. (Speaking of which, wouldn't it be sad and ironic should the Panthers win a Cup with the core of the team players Tallon brought in. He did the same for the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks yet was fired before he could get his name on the Cup despite having his stamp all over that team.) Ekblad is a key building block, but to summarily fire Gallant 22 games into a season with no class or honor (I do believe that's a tenet of West Point, isn't it?) shows me more of a Wall Street than a West Point mentality. Let's call it Wall Point, shall we?

How does one make billions on Wall Street? Certainly not with a long-term buy-and-hold policy. No, all those trading algorithms are put to use making thousands of trades in microseconds daily. This firing smacks of the same. It's short-term thinking. We'll see if it works in the NHL.

So Tom Rowe is the new Lou--a GM who steps down to coach. Although Rowe was a head coach for six seasons in the AHL and two in the KHL, he has a horrendous playoff record--four times his teams lost in the first round and only in his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes' farm team, the Lowell Lock Monsters, did his team win a playoff round. In the KHL his Lokomotiv Yaroslavl also lost in the first round.

Then again Lou Lamoriello's coaching record in "pro" hockey was not all that great. Twice he took over the Devils' coaching reigns. The first time in the 2006 playoffs he got them past round one then they were out in round two. The second time in 2015 they missed the playoffs.

So if it's the new Lou the Panthers' owner wants, maybe it's the new Lou he gets.