TAMPA, Fla. — As he prepared his team to play its final game of 2021 on Friday at Amalie Arena against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant took a minute to reflect on how the year was for him personally.
He started the year unemployed, having been fired by the Vegas Golden Knights halfway through the 2019-20 season. But he ended it as the coach of a Rangers team that, with a 19-8-4 record entering Friday, was solidly in an Eastern Conference playoff position in 2021-22.
"Well, the first half [of 2021] wasn’t good, but the second half was real good, actually,’’ he said after his team’s optional morning skate.
The turnaround for Gallant occurred when he got the job as coach of Team Canada for the 2021 World Championships. The team started slowly but ended up winning the gold medal. Then the Rangers hired him over the summer to replace David Quinn, who was let go after three rebuilding seasons.
The Rangers entered the Tampa Bay game with a 46-31-10 record for the calendar year. Gallant’s task with the team is to lead the organization into the next phase — out of the rebuild and back into being a playoff team and a team building toward being a Stanley Cup contender.
The Rangers have started off strongly, though they entered Friday in a 1-3-1 slide. They still held a three-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for third place in the Metropolitan Division and were 10 points ahead of Philadelphia, which is the first non-playoff team in the conference.
Gallant is focused on catching teams such as the Lightning, whose 46 points (21-7-4) were the most in the league.
"I don’t worry about the teams behind us,’’ he said. "I worry about trying to catch the teams in front of us. That’s what our mentality is. We can’t worry about teams coming from behind. You’ve got to worry about winning your hockey games and getting points. And that’ll take care of itself.’’
Gallant has been a laissez-faire coach, one who doesn’t say much to the players and who has preached positivity all season long, praising the team’s effort often, even after losses.
He’s demanded a more straight-line approach in games, and while the team has been driven by the goaltending of Igor Shesterkin and the offensive brilliance of Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and the top two forward lines, Gallant has gotten mileage out of the fourth line in a way Quinn never did.
Gallant said he doesn’t think he has changed much style-wise from his time with the Golden Knights, whom he led to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, the club’s first season in the NHL.
"A little more experience, that’s it,’’ he said. "There’s not a whole lot of changes in the way I approach the game and the way I coach my team. You are who you are and, you know, that’s what I bring to the game. You hope you get better. You hope you make your team better. You get a little more experience. But I’m the same coach I was in Vegas. No difference.’’
Kaapo Kakko, the third-year forward from Finland, was asked if he’s seen growth from the team in 2021.
"I think we’re playing better right now,’’ Kakko said. "We’re winning games. I think our game is better.’’
Kakko said his own personal game also is improved. He’s better in the defensive zone, and he said Gallant’s preference to keep the team’s lines together has helped him.
"I’m playing with the same players all the time,’’ he said. "The lines are not changing all the time.’’