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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Peter DeBoer hiring may be Lou Lamoriello's last chance to get it right

By Scott Burnside

We happened to be talking to a former NHL executive this week and Peter DeBoer's name came up.

The idea that DeBoer would be named the next coach of the New Jersey Devils, which he was Tuesday, didn't come up in the conversation.

But what was mentioned was the idea that it was a bit of a surprise DeBoer was still on the market after being fired by the Florida Panthers at the end of the regular season. He had been offered a job on Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit and was approached about joining Brent Sutter's bench in Calgary. Instead, DeBoer decided to bide his time and wait for a head coaching job.

It turned out to be an astute observation, and it reinforced a point made during our discussion that GMs weren't likely to be put off by DeBoer's lack of success during his three-year run in Florida. The theory, one to which New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello must subscribe, is DeBoer was as much a victim of circumstance in Florida as he was a victim of his inexperience.

Three years ago, DeBoer was the hotshot junior coaching prospect that was suddenly being courted by all manner of NHL teams. He was offered the Ottawa Senators job, but ended up signing on in Florida. In his first season, the Panthers posted 93 points and tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with the Montreal Canadiens, but lost out on a playoff spot in a tiebreaker.

Over the next two seasons, the talent-challenged Panthers took steps back and GM Dale Tallon moved quickly after this past regular season to make a change, hiring former NHLer Kevin Dineen to replace DeBoer with the revamped roster.

A year ago, the Devils were in a familiar position, looking to fill their head-coaching spot. Jacques Lemaire, who was brought in before the 2009-10 season to replace the suddenly departed Sutter, announced his retirement. Longtime Devils player and assistant coach John MacLean was finally given his chance, but the decision turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the star-struck Devils.

MacLean couldn't get star winger Ilya Kovalchuk going and top forward Zach Parise went down early with a knee injury, as did Hall of Fame-bound netminder Martin Brodeur. Torn between his loyalty to MacLean and the need to right the ship, Lamoriello ultimately waited too long to dismiss MacLean. Lemaire returned by Christmas and helped orchestrate a spirited second-half comeback that left the Devils just short of a playoff spot.

It was the first time the Devils missed the postseason since 1996, but followed a disappointing post-lockout trend that has seen the Devils struggle for traction. After bowing out in the second round of the playoffs in 2006 and 2007, the Devils were dispatched in the first round the next three seasons before last year's no-show.

Exit Lemaire (again), and the Devils were again without a coach.

Although Craig MacTavish and Michel Therrien were believed to be in the mix (and there was the intriguing possibility of hiring former Devils forward Kirk Muller, who is now getting his first taste of head coaching in the AHL), Lamoriello opted for DeBoer. Perhaps DeBoer's experience in Florida will allow him to flourish with the Devils; we have seen top coaches like Tom Renney and others stumble before hitting their coaching stride.

When you're a team like the Devils, a team that has struggled mightily since the lockout to come to grips with the new NHL, these kinds of decisions grow in magnitude.

For instance, how important is it for DeBoer to get the team off to a good start, or persuading Parise to tie his future to the franchise? How crucial is it that DeBoer form a bond with Kovalchuk?

Each new coach seems to bring the franchise closer and closer to irrelevancy; and yet, each new coach seemingly may be the one to turn the corner and bring the Devils back to glory.

Will DeBoer be that coach? One gets the feeling this may be Lamoriello's last chance to answer that question in the affirmative.