Cross Checks: Peter DeBoer
While the conversation began with thoughts on his team showing the experts wrong by reaching the Eastern Conference finals, it’s clear the longtime GM of the Devils was tempering his present success with the regrets of last season.
A year ago, his team missed the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons. It’s just not something the Devils do under Lou Lamoriello. It was a nightmarish first half that ultimately forced him to fire loyal Devil John MacLean as head coach just before Christmas.
"Last year I take full responsibility because you can’t have the players we have and the summer we had and put that in the hands of a young coach," Lamoriello told ESPN.com on Friday. "Once the wheels start coming off, unfortunately we had to make the decision we did. Then we got it back on track but it was too late. We’ve always felt that we should be able to have a team that can compete."
They are doing more than just competing right now, fresh off a five-game second-round victory over the favored Philadelphia Flyers.
Just don’t tell Lou the Devils "have surprised."
"We did have over 100 points during the season; it’s not like we weren’t one of the teams that have a chance," he pointedly observed.
When Jacques Lemaire went back into retirement after last season, Lamoriello filled the coaching void with Pete DeBoer, who had been fired in Florida. And that’s where this year’s success begins, Lamoriello said.
"I think Pete is very intelligent; that’s the first thing I recognized about him. He has no ego, and that’s a prerequisite here," Lamoriello chuckled. "And I felt very comfortable when I spoke to him.
"Philosophically, he believes in defense [another Devils must] and yet he wanted to push a little. The game has changed today and you have to adjust. But the one thing you don’t do is change the fundamentals, the particulars, that players have to do. He’s done, in my mind, a tremendous job coming from last year to this year."
Under DeBoer, star winger Ilya Kovalchuk has flourished. A year ago, Kovalchuk was the whipping boy for the critics, some of it fair given his lack of production at times and his seeming difficulty adjusting to the Devils after signing a huge contract in the summer of 2010. Today, Kovalchuk is the Devils’ top Conn Smythe candidate through two rounds.
"I can’t say enough about Ilya," Lamoriello said. "First thing you have to know about Ilya Kovalchuk is that he’s a good person. He cares about his teammates, he gets along with them, he interacts with them. He came into an organization [Atlanta] when he was 18 years old and he was asked to do things that you really shouldn’t ask anyone to do and along the way you take things into your own hands. He’s come here, he’s fit in, he’s responded to the changes that were asked of him to make for the good of the team, and I can’t say enough about him. I just can’t say enough."
Before I can ask another question, Lamoriello moves on to captain Zach Parise. Again, hefty praise.
"We’ve got a leader here in Zach who just exemplifies what you want out of a player every shift," Lamoriello said. "And Patrick Elias and Marty [Martin Brodeur] and [Bryce] Salvador -- the leadership has been strong. We’ve got people who help each other. They don’t want to let each other down right now and that’s what you need."
What better way to end the conversation than with "Marty." Can anyone remember a time when neither Lamoriello nor Brodeur was not part of the scene in New Jersey?
Having just turned 40, Brodeur is defying those who said his game was slipping.
"I mean, how many years now people have said, 'Marty this' and 'Marty that,'" said the Devils GM. "I don’t know of any other goalie that I’d want in a seven-game series -- including today. Where he’s at, he’s been tremendous."
Marty and Lou on a playoff run. The game has changed, but some traditions haven’t.
We happened to be talking to a former NHL executive this week and Peter DeBoer's name came up.
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.