Peter DeBoer will be named San Jose Sharks coach despite one playoff appearance in seven seasons. Yet the underlying numbers suggest he’s actually underrated, not overrated.
The San Jose Sharks named Peter DeBoer the ninth coach in their history Thursday. And while we’ve seen sexier hires this off-season, from Mike Babcock in Toronto to Dan Bylsma in Buffalo, DeBoer’s might be the most polarizing.
Are the Sharks dousing their tire fire in gasoline by signing a man with one playoff appearance in seven seasons as an NHL head coach? Or are they buying low on a sneaky-good bench boss who made a lot out of a little on two sputtering franchises in the past?
Before even looking at DeBoer’s NHL record, let’s flip the calendar back to his junior days. DeBoer was a prolific OHL coach. Between the Detroit/Plymouth Whalers and Kitchener Rangers, he won at least 40 games eight times in 13 seasons. His teams topped 50 wins twice. He shepherded the likes of Bryan Berard, David Legwand, Justin Williams, Stephen Weiss, Mike Richards, Derek Roy, Mikkel Boedker, Nazem Kadri and Steve Mason. DeBoer is also widely credited for helping turn David Clarkson from a grinder into a power forward, not just in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, but first when Clarkson was a scuffling junior with Kitchener.
DeBoer and I spoke shortly after Clarkson signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013. He explained Clarkson had a steep learning curve to overcome when he first arrived from Belleville before emerging as a force.
“I don’t know if I molded him,” DeBoer said at the time. “He always had that special quality. He’s always been an agitator. He’s always been a guy that, when the puck drops, he’s pissing off the best players on the other team and the opposing coach, and he can back it up. That’s not something a coach instills, You’re born with that and grew up with that. He always had that. It was harnessing that and at the same time realizing he could play the game too and had to make himself a player.”
DeBoer was modest about it but clearly knew how to get through to Clarkson and how to get through to an entire team. DeBoer’s Rangers captured the 2003 Memorial Cup, with Clarkson, and reached the tournament again as host in 2008.
DeBoer had nothing left to accomplish in junior. Even on the international side of things, he played a major role in assembling the unstoppable 2005 Canadian world junior squad. Coach Brent Sutter told THN a few months ago DeBoer was the first person he and Bob Nicholson wanted to hire.
DeBoer naturally progressed to the NHL, where he landed his first head coaching gig with the Florida Panthers. He missed the playoffs three straight years and regressed from 93 to 77 to 72 points. Still, what did DeBoer have to work with? His Panthers teams were built around a good-but-not-great young core of Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Nathan Horton up front, with Jay Bouwmeester on the back end and Tomas Vokoun in net. The veteran support at various points during DeBoer’s three-year Panthers tenure? Aging Bryan McCabe…aging Richard Zednik…aging Cory Stillman…aging Marty Reasoner…aging Steve Reinprecht…even Sergei Samsonov stopped by. It wasn’t pretty.
Lou Lamoriello evidently realized DeBoer had little to work with in Sunrise, Fla., and gladly hired him as New Jersey Devils head coach. The 2011-12 team had monsters named Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk fuelling its offense. It had a Patrik Elias still fresh enough to notch 78 points. It had one of the league’s Calder Trophy finalists in Adam Henrique. It had five 20-goal scorers and two 30-goal scorers. It had Martin Brodeur in his last season of true relevance as a No. 1 NHL goaltender. And, voila, that team won 48 games and went to the Stanley Cup final, where it lost to the L.A. Kings in six games.
DeBoer’s Devils missed the playoffs the next season. Wild guess that Parise, their best player, departing for Minnesota in free agency had something to do with that, as did Brodeur finally showing his age in a season that started in January. The year after that? Another missed post-season and, wild guess, losing Clarkson to the Leafs and Kovalchuk to the KHL might have had an effect. All three 30-goal men from the 2012 team were gone from DeBoer’s 2013-14 and 2014-15 Devils, which tried to replace the production with a cadre of veterans including Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder and Mike Cammalleri.
DeBoer teams’ offensive rank by season, excluding his partial 2014-15:
So DeBoer teams have produced horrific offensive totals in almost all his years as a coach. The one team he had that scored at even a league average level: the one time he had Kovalchuk and Parise. Meanwhile, every DeBoer team but one finished in the top half defensively. Some might say DeBoer teams simply can’t score. I say his teams do score on the rare occasions they boast good scorers.
Here’s how DeBoer teams ranked in Corsi Close over that same span of six completed seasons, per puckalytics.com:
The first couple Panther teams were bad and weren’t even unlucky, based on the possession numbers. Interesting, though, was DeBoer’s Devils finishing third and fourth in Corsi Close during years in which his teams finished 28th and 27th in goals scored. Those teams generated far more shot attempts than their opponents yet simply couldn’t finish. Perhaps the product of having so little offensive talent up front.
And that brings us to the San Jose Sharks, proud owners of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns. Even a Sharks franchise seemingly in decline already offers by far the most talent top to bottom DeBoer has ever gotten to coach. San Jose allowed an unsightly 2.76 goals per game in 2014-15, good for 24th in the league, and no DeBoer squad has finished worse than 19th over a full season.
DeBoer sure seems like a nice fit for San Jose. The kneejerk reaction may be to call him overrated because of one playoff appearance, but the underlying numbers suggest the opposite. The man isn’t a miracle worker. If you give him legit skill to work with, though, he wins. The Sharks, for all their warts, still have some truly special players.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin