Peter DeBoer deserves to win the Jack Adams Award, awarded “to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” The New Jersey Devils, despite losing an abundance of top players over the last two years and a plethora of shootout losses this season, are still in the playoff hunt. The ride this season has been nothing but choppy for Jersey’s Team but they enter the second week of April three points back of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
DeBoer’s First Two Seasons with the New Jersey Devils
DeBoer became the head coach of the Devils before the 2011-12 season and had some large shoes to fill. He replaced the most successful coach in Devils history, Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire coached New Jersey from 1993-94 until stepping down following the 1997-98 season and won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 1995. He returned for the 2009-10 season and replaced the fired John MacLean during the 2010-11 campaign before retiring for good.
DeBoer’s roster was a stark contrast from his days as the head coach of the Florida Panthers (2008-2011) as well. With New Jersey, he now had a top line of captain Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and star winger Ilya Kovalchuk. DeBoer successfully converted the career-long left wing, Kovalchuk, into a solid ring wing. DeBoer also helped develop rookie center and eventual playoff hero Adam Henrique and turned David Clarkson, one of his players when he coached Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, into a 30-goal scorer for the first time in his career. DeBoer was blessed to have alternate captain Patrik Elias on his second line alongside the Czech’s old sidekick from the early 2000s in Petr Sykora. The Devils added missing pieces during the season with grinder Alexei Ponikarovsky and offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky coming aboard. The Devils, spearheaded by DeBoer and his two assistants Adam Oates and Larry Robinson, marched through DeBoer’s former team, the Florida Panthers, and defeated their two biggest rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. The Devils train, however, ran out of steam and they fell to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
The highlight of DeBoer’s first two seasons came on May 25th, 2012, when the Devils advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final:
Following the series DeBoer lost his captain to the Minnesota Wild and Sykora was not re-signed. His assistants on the bench bolted as well with Oates taking over the coaching duties in Washington and Robinson crossing the country for a spot on the San Jose Sharks bench. Longtime Devils captain and defensive stalwart Scott Stevens took over for Robinson and Matt Shaw, former assistant with the Sharks, took over for Oates. New Jersey opened the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign with an incredible 10-3-4 start but injuries to goaltender Martin Brodeur and Kovalchuk derailed the Devils. The Devils depth was tested but the shortened schedule did not allow the Devils enough time to recover and they failed to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.
Then DeBoer’s roster and coaching staff took another massive hit. Kovalchuk “retired” to Russia, Clarkson went home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Shaw stepped down to be the general manager and coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. Mike Foligno replaced Shaw and the Devils added Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, and Jaromir Jagr in free agency. Star goaltender Cory Schneider was traded to the Devils by the Vancouver Canucks. This set the stage for the toughest season of DeBoer’s coaching career and he has responded more than admirably. He has helped orchestrate a Devils season that should end with him holding the Jack Adams Award at the 2014 NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas on June 24th, 2014.
DeBoer Is the Reason for the Devils Success This Season
A Chemistry Experiment With a Host of New Forwards
Entering the 2013-14 season with a host of new faces led to early problems for DeBoer and the Devils. The early experiment to find chemistry with the lines had promising moments but led to dramatic failure. The Devils opened the season by being shut out in Pittsburgh against the Penguins but the Devils responded by scoring eleven goals in their next four games. The new faces were the main contributors with Brunner netting three goals, Ryder a pair, and Jagr another two. Elias (2 goals), Henrique, and Dainius Zubrus also found the back of the net for the Devils but the goals meant nothing as the Devils lost their first seven games of the season. Two of those losses came to the Edmonton Oilers and Canucks when the Devils blew leads of 3-0 and 2-0, respectively. Then matters got worse when the Devils lost Clowe just six games into the season when he suffered another concussion.
DeBoer’s search for chemistry finally began to pay off as October switched to November. The Devils defeated the Rangers soundly 4-0 to win their first game of the season on October 19th and a week later they rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Boston Bruins for their first road win of the season by a final of 4-3. The Devils won five of six games from November 10th through the 21st which included their only three-game winning streak of the season. Despite not stringing together another winning streak the Devils have kept pace in the battle for a playoff spot regardless. The Devils have not won more than two games in a row since then but have only gone at most three games in a row without securing at least one point in the standings twice. Since opening the season winless in their first seven games, the Devils have not had a losing streak of more than three games since then either.
DeBoer has navigated a team that has seen players fall into horrific slumps. Steve Bernier is in the midst of a 46-game goalless drought dating back to December 2nd at the Montreal Canadiens. In his first full NHL-length season, Brunner has struggled to find the back of the net as well. Brunner seemed to be hitting his stride in mid-December when he scored four goals and added an assist in four games but then he suffered a lower-body injury. He has battled through two separate goalless streaks of 11 and 17 games. Ryder had a 23-game streak without a goal from mid-January through mid-March. His slump is especially debilitating because he was signed to find the back of the net with the exodus of Kovalchuk and Clarkson last summer. He had scored 16 goals in the shortened 2012-13 campaign with the Dallas Stars and Canadiens after putting up 35 goals with the Stars two seasons ago.
On the contrary, DeBoer averted dangerous waters when it came to the Devils MVP this season in Jagr. Jagr had been on the same line as Zajac dating back to November when DeBoer split them up during a practice on February 7th. At that point Jagr had failed to record at least one point in at least two or more games just four times since they were united. Entering that practice Jagr had put up 12 points in 10 games all coming with Zajac as his center. Zajac had put up eight points in seven contests entering that practice. Jagr told Tom Gulitti of The Record the split, which put then-Devil Andrei Loktionov on the top line with Jagr in place of Zajac, “didn’t make sense to me” and was visibly angry. The move didn’t last long and in the following game they were reunited in the third period even though Loktionov did score earlier in the game against the Edmonton Oilers. DeBoer found a way to spark the struggling team but also ended any chance of causing of a blaze that would be detrimental to his 42-year old star.
Peter DeBoer, seen here yelling towards an official, and Jaromir Jagr (68) are a huge reason the Devils are still in the playoff picture.
DeBoer has mixed and matched his forwards with varying degrees of success. While some of DeBoer’s players have had to fight through enraging slumps, others such as Henrique and Elias have helped the Devils stay afloat in the crowded chase for the final playoff spot. Henrique has 25 goals and 18 assists on the season and Elias has 17 goals along with 34 assists. DeBoer no longer has Parise and Kovalchuk but has managed to get the most out of his team, which lacks any real superstar aside from Brodeur, when necessary.
The Curse of the Shootout
The Devils toughest battle on offense has actually been in the shootout. They have scored just 3 goals on 39 attempts and have lost all 11 shootouts in which they have participated. The Devils went 12-4 in shootouts in DeBoer’s first season with New Jersey but the Devils had Kovalchuk and Parise leading off. Their lack of success does not fall on his shoulders but he has tried everything possible to snap the Devils funk. In their most recent shootout on April 1st at the Buffalo Sabres, DeBoer’s first shooter was Jacob Josefson. In and out of the lineup for most of the season, DeBoer took a shot at the seldom used forward and he was rewarded when Josefson scored to tie the shootout. DeBoer also used Zidlicky to no avail and also tapped the shoulders of Mike Sislo, a rookie who started the day in Albany with the Devils developmental squad, the Albany Devils. Earlier in the season DeBoer used Albany Devil forward Reid Boucher in the shootout and Boucher responded by scoring the Devils only shootout goal of the season prior to this game. Sislo failed to score and the Devils fell to the Sabres 3-2 but DeBoer did everything in his power to reverse the shootout curse.
An Overcrowded Blue Line Calls For Tough Decisions
DeBoer has also faced a great deal of adversity with his blue line and his goaltenders. Over the course of the season DeBoer has been forced to find ice time for nine NHL-capable defensemen when all are healthy. He also has one of the league’s most envious problems with Brodeur and Schneider battling to be the team’s starting goaltender. Dealing with such a host of competitive personalities has been a rough task but DeBoer has managed to keep the team’s back end working at the top of their game. Their best stat is the penalty kill where the Devils lead the NHL with an 87.2% success rate.
Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas have been the two defensemen shuttled in and out of the lineup the most but each player has improved as the season has worn on. Larsson remained in the AHL after recovering from an injury he suffered at the San Jose Sharks on November 23rd but returned for the game on March 31st against the Florida Panthers. He said his time in Albany was great for him and he certainly produced while playing for the A-Devils as he put up 19 points in 32 games. Gelinas has also spent portions of the season with both Albany and New Jersey. Gelinas has scored seven goals, five of which were on the power play and two of which were game-winners, this season. He has added 22 assists. He spent the Olympic break with Albany in order to develop the defensive side of his game and is +2 since his return. He entered the break with a +/- rating of -5. DeBoer’s confidence in Gelinas has fluctuated at different points of the season. During a ten-game stretch from November 23rd at San Jose to December 10th at the Columbus Blue Jackets Gelinas never dipped below 19:32 in ice time per game. Since then he has surpassed the 18:00 mark in ice time just 11 times in 36 games. In seven of those games his ice time didn’t even reach 9:00. Regardless of their time spent in New Jersey this season on the ice, Gelinas and Larsson have performed admirably and DeBoer’s decisions have paid off as they continue to develop.
DeBoer has relied upon his veterans Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne, Peter Harrold, and Bryce Salvador heavily but the play of rookie Jon Merrill has not gone unnoticed. He has received at least 15:00 of ice time in every game he has played this season excluding his injury-shortened NHL debut on November 3rd at the Minnesota Wild. Merrill has also scored a pair of goals, both of which were game-winners this season, and added eight assists. His first NHL goal was an overtime winner against the Edmonton Oilers on February 7th. While DeBoer has faced criticism in his lack of confidence at times with Larsson and Gelinas, DeBoer has total faith in Merrill. He has worked well with all three defensemen, however, and they have improved tremendously over the course of the season.
Jon Merrill scores his first NHL goal in dramatic fashion when he nets the overtime winner against the Edmonton Oilers:
DeBoer’s Most Grueling Struggle: Who Starts in Goal? Martin Brodeur or Cory Schneider?
Perhaps DeBoer’s most grueling struggle has been the battle to keep both of his net minders content. The NHL’s all-time wins leader in Brodeur has been the Devils unquestioned starter since the mid 1990s and Schneider had been stuck behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver since his rookie season in 2010-11. Schneider developed into an elite goaltender while with the Canucks before he was traded to the Devils at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Entering the season DeBoer took a 1 and 1A approach in terms of his starting goaltender but it wasn’t long before the competitive nature of his goaltenders desire to start began to surface.
After rotating his goaltenders to open the season, Schneider was the first goalie to take hold in the crease when he started three consecutive games from October 19th-24th including the first match-up against the Rangers this season that Schneider and the Devils won 4-0. Brodeur was the first goaltender to open up when he said that Schneider was “in the net now to stay.” Turned out it was an early false alarm on Brodeur’s part as Schneider suffered a lower-body injury that forced him out of the net. Brodeur started the next three games before Schneider returned. As the rotating of the goaltenders started again Brodeur once again revealed he would consider waiving his “no-trade clause” at the deadline but insisted he wanted to remain with the Devils and help them reach the postseason.
Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur
Brodeur started seven of the nine games from November 10th through November 27th. Before the final game of that stretch, Schneider began to show frustration and claimed that it was “Groundhog Day” for him and that he wanted “to see the ice a bit more” as the memory of playing behind Luongo began to resurface in his current situation. After Brodeur and the Devils lost that November 27th game with the Carolina Hurricanes, Schneider took the reins in the crease and started four of the next five games. Then the shuffling in the net started again before Schneider took the number one spot from the second week of January until after the Olympic break.
During the latter stages of the pre-Olympic schedule until the NHL trade deadline rumors about Brodeur’s fate with the only team he has ever suited up for began to snowball. Brodeur started just three of the final fifteen games before the Olympic break and lost two of them including the outdoor game at Yankee Stadium to the Rangers. Following the break Brodeur and Schneider rotated in the crease and the deadline passed without any moves involving the Devils top net minders.
DeBoer Has Stood Tall In the Face of Pressure and Adversity
DeBoer has gotten the Devils to within one point (now three points) of the final playoff spot after they defeated the Washington Capitals and Hurricanes during the first weekend in April. He has done so after the departures of two superstars in Parise and Kovalchuk that were never adequately replaced. He lost other top wingers in Sykora and Clarkson. He has battled to find the right chemistry with his lines after a massive overhaul during his tenure here that introduced four new forwards to the organization entering this season alone. He has weathered the storm despite a host of slumps, injuries, and the persona of Jaromir Jagr. He has worked with six different assistant coaches since he started behind the Devils bench. He has the Devils within reach despite an overcrowded blue line and two ultra-competitive goaltenders fighting for a spot in the crease with trade rumors hovering above the NHL’s winningest goaltender. Considering the pressure that also comes when General Manager Lou Lamoriello is the man to which he must answer in addition to all of the above, DeBoer has the Devils closer to the playoffs than he probably should considering the turbulence that has surrounded the team this season. Whether the Devils make the playoffs or not at this point, for being this close to a spot alone, DeBoer deserves to win the Jack Adams Award.
Leo is in his second year with THW. He covers the 3-Time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils and the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League. You can follow Leo on Twitter, @LeoScaglioneJr.