By Stu Hackel
Last week, we examined the state of the Devils and rounded up the usual suspects for the team’s next coach, listing the candidates whose names we’d seen circulated over the last three months as potential hires by GM Lou Lamoriello: Larry Robinson, Scott Stevens, Adam Oates, Mike Keenan, Ken Hitchcock, Guy Carbonneau, Michel Therrien, Craig MacTavish, Craig Ramsay, Mike Haviland, Kirk Muller, Marc Crawford, Bob Hartley, Mike Eaves and the ever-popular Jacques Lemaire. “Most of them have denied that they’re in the running or they discouraged speculation in some way,” we wrote, “leaving the impression that none will be Lou’s guy.” And we added, “One supposes that Lou is taking his time to get this one right….His choices almost always surprise.”
So we shouldn’t be surprised today, but we are, that a) none of the above were Lamoriello’s choice and b) he perhaps did get it right. Peter DeBoer wasn’t on the list and now — duh! — he seems in retrospect to be the most logical guy for the job. In fact, of all the new coaching hires in the NHL this offseason, it’s quite possible that the Devils made the best choice of all.
First, it’s important to recall that DeBoer was very highly sought-after when he decided to jump from junior hockey to the NHL three years ago after winning the Memorial Cup and compiling an impressive coaching resume. His teams are always well-prepared and, in hockey parlance, hard to play against, meaning they exhibit a strong work ethic and take the body. DeBoer’s teams don’t get penciled in as an easy two points by opposing coaches when they look at their schedule.
DeBoer wasn’t going to be out of hockey long after the Panthers decided to go in a different direction last April. He remained in demand and was courted for an assistant coach’s spot by a few teams such as Calgary (where former Devils Coach Brent Sutter is a big fan who hailed DeBoer’s hiring, as The Newark Star-Ledger’s Rich Chere wrote today), Detroit and perhaps Montreal among them.
You have to disabuse yourself of the notion that DeBoer’s record in Florida (three years, no playoff appearances) indicates that he’s in over his head running an NHL bench. Coaching the Panthers, unfortunately, was more of a test of DeBoer’s patience than a test of his coaching chops. Almost from the time he arrived, the team began to unravel.
As George Richards of The Miami Herald recalled after DeBoer was let go in April, “During the interview process, DeBoer was told by owner Alan Cohen and general manager Jacques Martin that the Panthers would do everything it took to win, and if that meant spending money to make a move if the team was close to a playoff spot, it would be done. DeBoer liked what he heard and signed on to coach in South Florida.” A week after he was hired, the Panthers traded their best player, Olli Jokinen, to Phoenix. The same thing happened during the next two offseasons: a core member of the club was dealt, with Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton following Jokinen out of South Florida. DeBoer had three GMs in three seasons and ownership changed as well. The place was a mess that is only now starting to get fixed.
In his first year, DeBoer managed to guide Florida to a 93-point season, second-best in franchise history. The Panthers tied for eighth place in the East, but didn’t qualify for the playoffs, losing out on a tie-breaker to Montreal, which had beaten them in three of four head-to-head meetings. It was all downhill after that, largely because the roster was gradually depleted, first to dump salary, and this year to create cap space for an impressively rebuilt roster that DeBoer wasn’t asked to direct.
“I think he’s been a good coach. We had 93 points in his first year, and he got a lot out of that group,’’ center Stephen Weiss told Edwards. “At the end of the day, you need the players. I don’t think he had that here, those guys you could lean on to get the job done. It’s been a depleted lineup with injuries and everything. To be .500 or so, I think he did a great job with what he had.”
So the Devils are getting a man who has NHL experience. But he’s not so far removed from junior hockey that he’s anti-young player and prefers veterans, as some longtime coaches do. That’s good because Devils are no longer a veteran-laden team. Reliable veterans of the past have departed and/or declined and, because of the big, long Ilya Kovalchuk contract and the one they hope to sign with Zach Parise, they are going to have to keep the cap manageable with players who have entry level contracts.
Well, DeBoer knows how to develop young talent and Jersey has some, starting with their prized first-round draft choice, defenseman Adam Larsson, and forwards Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson and Nick Palmieri, all are under 22, and 26-year-old Travis Zajac (who played for Team Canada at the World Championships when DeBoer coached it in 2010). These are names DeBoer rattled off on Monday when he spoke with Jeff Blair and Damien Cox on The Fan 590 in Toronto (audio). “Right now,” he said, “there’s a nice combination of some older veteran players who have won Cups or multiple Cups led by our goaltender and some young enthusiasm in guys that can play.”
He was referring to future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur, of course, Colin White and Patrik Elias. DeBoer will have to win over those Cup vets as well as other players like Parise and, especially, Kovalchuk, who is married to the Devils till death do they part. Kovalchuk didn’t get along well with John MacLean and played like it at the start of last season. Without Kovalchuk at his best, the Devils fared poorly.
It’s a coaching axiom that the guy running the team must have at least a respectful relationship with his superstar. NBC analyst and SI’s Pierre McGuire is one person who feels that won’t be a problem for DeBoer. “I think he’s one of the best young coaches in hockey because he has an affinity for working with star players,” McGuire said on Wednesday. “In Kitchener, he had Mike Richards and Derek Roy. They were big-time stars in junior and he pushed them to another level.”
DeBoer’s teams “play with tempo and energy,’ McGuire continued. “They’re physical but they don’t play passive resistance hockey. He was part of two Team Canada World Junior Championship coaching staffs that played high-energy, high-octane hockey. He’s more open in terms of style and play than even Brent Sutter,” whose teams played more of a puck pursuit game than the Devils are usually known to do.
“He runs excellent, creative practices,” McGuire said, and that’s always a plus in keeping players’ attention during the long season. And he comes up with very creative offensive game plans.
“New Jersey had to find a coach who had an ability to be respected when he walked in the room and treat star players properly. The Devils have the reputation of their star offensive players getting stagnant because of their style. But they’ve found that guy who can treat them well. I think he’s the best fit for the Devils.”
So does the Devils’ David Clarkson, who also played for DeBoer in Kitchener. “Wherever he goes, he finds a way to get the best out of the players,” Clarkson told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. He knew how to push me the right way to get me to do things I had to get better. I think he believed in me as a player.
“I think he’s one of those guys that likes the game played hard. But at the same time he’s a players’ coach. If you have a question, you can go to him and he’ll explain to you what he wants you to do.”
Clarkson struggled last season, perhaps trying to do too much in light of the big contract he signed a year ago. A familiar boss might get him back to his game. “I haven’t played for him since junior, but I’m just a big fan of the way he did things,” Clarkson said. “You know he believes in the team. When gives a pre-game speech, you always knew what was going to happen in the game. I think this is a great move in the right direction for the New Jersey Devils.”
All those endorsements sound great, but when the puck is dropped, it will be the Ws and Ls that concern ownership, Lamoriello and Devils fans. Lamoriello’s hunch is that whatever shortcomings DeBoer might have exhibited in Florida can be attributed to his transition from junior to the NHL. He spoke yesterday about DeBoer’s Panther tenure as if it were an apprenticeship and sounded quite convinced that in his very methodical and quiet recruiting process he had found the right guy.
“I certainly knew him through juniors,” Lamoriello said. “I had players play there. I watched him coach. Watched him coach in international competition. And certainly playing against him in Florida. Watching the technical end of how Florida played. And knowing people he worked with. I’m extremely comfortable.”
Well, it’s easy to be comfortable in the middle of summer.