It has been a strange year for everyone, and Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer is certainly no exception. He took the reins in January after Gerard Gallant’s surprise termination a little over 18 months after he won the Jack Adams Award. In an ironic twist, DeBoer replaced the man who had famously called him a “clown” as head coach of the San Jose Sharks during their postseason series the previous spring.
DeBoer had barely 20 games to get to know his new team before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, he was rewarded with a trip to the Western Conference Final in the NHL’s Return to Play, but now he wants more.
DeBoer recently spoke with NHL.com’s Gary Lawless about his wild introduction to the Golden Knights organization and looked ahead to what fans can expect from his club next season. Here are some of the biggest takeaways:
1) The Power Play Needs Work
On the surface, the Golden Knights’ power play is hardly a glaring weakness. After all, the club scored at a 22% clip with the man advantage during the regular season, good for fourth in the West and ninth league-wide. That mark dropped in the postseason, however, to 18.2%, well behind the output of both Stanley Cup finalists, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.
DeBoer took note of his club’s struggles, specifically in relation to the teams that out-performed them with the extra man. “[Tampa] scored at least one power-play goal every game [against Dallas],” DeBoer pointed out. “While our scoring went cold in general, a power-play goal a night in any of our games would have made a difference.”
2) The Bubble Experience Helped Vegas
Between being fired by the San Jose Sharks last December to the NHL’s restart in the Edmonton bubble in August, DeBoer had been behind the bench just 22 times in nearly nine months. He wasn’t about to complain about being apart from family and friends for the restart. Instead, he suggested that the bubble environment helped him and the team get acclimated to one another:
“For us, the bubble experience was something that was really unique,” says DeBoer. “It gave me an unbelievable opportunity to get to know our players. I didn’t get a lot of time to spend with them when I came in. […] It was a real opportunity for me to get to know these guys intimately. It was a two-month road trip. I’m really glad we got to do it and I’m really hopeful that that will bear fruit.”
3) Plenty of Spots Will Be Up for Grabs
Even as he acknowledged that he was “handed the keys to the Porsche” when he became head coach of a Stanley Cup contender in Vegas, DeBoer isn’t about to guarantee anyone a spot in the lineup. Some of that uncertainty is based on health, particularly Cody Glass’ physical readiness to man one of the top three center spots. “There’s some opportunities there, specifically for centermen, in the organization in the forwards,” says DeBoer. “But also on defense, too.”
After William Karlsson, nothing is guaranteed down the middle, especially with Paul Stastny out the door. If Glass can’t perform up to top-six expectations, Chandler Stephenson, Nicolas Roy or Tomas Nosek could see time further up the lineup. (from ‘Center depth not an issue for Golden Knights, GM says,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal, 10/09/2020) DeBoer hasn’t made any firm decisions on blue line pairings at this point, either and he also hasn’t had much of an opportunity to get a read on the club’s depth beyond the NHL, given the inherent challenges posed by the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
4) Pietrangelo Will Help with Balance, Theodore
When asked about major free-agent addition Alex Pietrangelo, DeBoer couldn’t help but rave about the player who was a handful for his Sharks in two Conference Final series. “I’ve seen him in those situations and always walked away admiring how solid his game is at both ends of the rink,” says DeBoer. “The other team just had a calmness to them when he was on the ice for those 25 minutes a night.”
He recognizes the value of having Pietrangelo’s right shot among a group that shoots left, including Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Alec Martinez and Nick Holden. Beyond that, he also admitted that the two-time All-Star will help shield Theodore from the type of attention he was getting from opposing teams as Vegas’ de facto No. 1 defenseman. “The more guys that the other team has to circle, the less attention they can put on one or two guys,” DeBoer points out. “[Pietrangelo’s] benefit to Theodore, but also to a lot of other guys, is be able to free them up.”
5) The Young Guys Need to Step Up
For a veteran-laden club with immediate Stanley Cup aspirations, DeBoer loves to talk about what’s coming up the pipeline. He specifically mentioned Glass, Peyton Krebs and Nic Hague in discussing the next wave of talent who can step up for the Golden Knights, hopefully as early as next season.
“You look around the league and there’s young guys playing important roles on a lot of teams,” says Deboer. “When I came in January we did that with Zach Whitecloud, we did that with Nic Roy. That list of guys we need to be this year’s version of those guys who really helped us a lot in our run to the conference final.”
DeBoer took some flack for some of his coaching decisions during the Golden Knights’ postseason run, particularly how he handled the goaltending situation and his failure to shake up lines that weren’t producing against the Stars. If any of those criticisms have affected the well-traveled bench boss, he didn’t show it. Instead, he remains confident in leading a team that many expect to challenge for the Cup in 2020-21.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.