The Sharks’ Peter DeBoer Question

San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has his team a shade out of first place in the Pacific Division and the team is coming off a homestand with a 4-1-1 record. The Sharks have been to the playoffs in all three of DeBoer’s seasons, winning a total of four playoff series. This isn’t the resume of a coach whose job is on the line, and yet, that might be the case.

Stanley Cup Talent

The Sharks, objectively, have one of the league’s top rosters. They feature a blue line which is enormously talented. Two players have won Norris Trophies, a third is an Olympic gold medalist. On the wing, no other team can match the Sharks’ trio of power forwards and down the middle, the top two forward lines are centered by excellent players, while the third line is centered by a player who just passed Mario Lemieux on the all-time assists list.

With all this talent, there have been plenty of concerns about DeBoer and his approach this season. Yes, he does have the Sharks near the top of the Pacific Division, but the division is the weakest in the league and the Sharks haven’t put much distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. Among Western Conference teams, they are not near the top, with just the sixth-best record. On a points per game basis, the Sharks are 13th in the league, just a few spots above the midpoint.

Sharks New Talent Excuse

The Sharks acquired elite defenseman Erik Karlsson during the preseason, giving him little time to integrate. But this excuse doesn’t hold a lot of water, largely because the rest of the roster is so stable. Every team has integration challenges with a new season and the Sharks have fewer than most. Only one other player, Finnish import Antti Suomela, is a regular starter who is new to the team. The other 16 regular skaters and both goalies were with the Sharks last season.

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson  (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The team’s roster continuity is an advantage and should be particularly pronounced early in the season while other teams face much larger integration challenges. The Calgary Flames (neck and neck with the Sharks in the standings), for example, have integrated six new skaters and a new coaching staff.

Fair Criticisms of DeBoer

Karlsson did get off to a rocky start, but I have few long-term concerns about his play, nor do I place blame on DeBoer for this. I am concerned with how DeBoer has managed the defensive group overall, notably Joakim Ryan. He is the heir apparent to Paul Martin for the role of Burns whisperer; a defenseman capable of complimenting the enormously talented but notoriously difficult to partner with Brent Burns. We covered this in detail recently, so suffice to say, DeBoer’s decisions regarding Ryan are troubling.

DeBoer has also taken plenty of heat for his constant line blending. I’ve been less critical in this area, though it is time for it to diminish. With the recently settled third line featuring Joe Thornton, Marcus Sorensen and Kevin Labanc, DeBoer seems to have lightened his use of the blender. He’ll use it when necessary, when in-game injuries or misconduct penalties occur (both occurred in the blowout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday).

Marcus Sorensen
Marcus Sorensen (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports)

Many wonder why DeBoer rolls out Melker Karlsson for every game. He’s had a down season but he offers two important things. He’s a very good forechecker, and forechecks lead to turnovers and turnovers lead to goals. Except that hasn’t happened for him and his linemates. He’s also excellent on the penalty kill, an area which is critical to the Sharks’ success this season. While I’ll agree Melker Karlsson hasn’t been good, he isn’t the reason the Sharks have yet to pull away in the division, nor is he a reason for meaningful criticism of DeBoer.

The Sharks have appeared undisciplined too often this season, giving up far too many odd-man rushes and quick-strike chances to opponents. It is why they are minus-7 during 5-on-5 play, placing them in the bottom quarter of the league. But the Sharks’ special teams have been special, overall plus-9 between the two units, second best in the league and on pace for a better finish than last season’s plus-26 total, which led the league.

Looking at the bigger picture, one might wonder how well DeBoer develops young players. Three former Sharks have elevated their game after leaving the team. Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo have both taken major leaps with increased opportunities with the Ottawa Senators, while Ryan Carpenter has carved out a regular role with the Golden Knights.

Regardless of these issues, the fact remains DeBoer is a good NHL coach and has a track record of being effective. As Kevin Kurz of The Athletic points out (beginning at the 25-minute mark), “You can make the case [DeBoer] has overachieved with all three of his teams.”

The Real DeBoer Question

I agree with Kurz to a point. DeBoer has taken the Sharks as far as they merited in each of his three seasons, but he hasn’t ‘overachieved’. To win a Stanley Cup, a team has to exceed expectations. Here is where the case against DeBoer finds traction. He has made a critical error in each of his three seasons which kept the Sharks from exceeding their potential.

Though it was clear they were vulnerable, DeBoer kept together the slow Brenden Dillon-Roman Polak defensive pairing against the lightning-quick Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and the Pens exploited the pairing. In his second season, the Sharks were particularly vulnerable to fatigue issues, something the coach could mitigate but didn’t. And sure enough, the team, in DeBoer’s own words, “Ran out of gas.” In his third season, DeBoer railed against breaking up the pairing of Brent Burns and Paul Martin for the playoff series against the Golden Knights, up until the pairing faltered at a very critical moment and cost the team the pivotal third game of the series.

Peter DeBoer coaching in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

In each case, outsiders (myself among them) saw the issues ahead of time. DeBoer either dismissed the risks or reacted too late. In hockey, you want to anticipate where the puck is going not where it’s been. At crucial times, DeBoer got stuck on where things were, failing to anticipate where things were going. Can DeBoer anticipate better and make the critical changes to help his team overachieve? How management answers this question is also the answer to DeBoer’s fate.

The Stanley Cup QQuestion

Sharks management, and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in particular, must be wondering if DeBoer is a coach who can win a Stanley Cup. DeBoer has met expectations. but hasn’t exceeded them. The roster talent equates to a top Stanley Cup contender, but contending isn’t enough for the Sharks franchise. They’ve done this for well over a decade while remaining championship-free. Anything short of hoisting the Stanley Cup and this season’s Sharks will go down as underachievers.

An obvious question follows. If DeBoer isn’t the right person to lead a championship team, who is? Is such a person even available? The answers are, respectively, Joel Quenneville and probably. Coach Q, recently fired from his run with the Chicago Blackhawks, is available if he wants to be available. He’s hoisted the Stanley Cup as a coach three times and he’s proven he can get his team to overachieve in the playoffs.

Joel Quenneville
Joel Quenneville (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

There are plenty of opinions on whether making this change is a good move. Some will wonder if a midseason coaching change is a good idea. DeBoer might not like the answer. He’s led two teams to a Stanley Cup Final. The first time, his opposing coach was a midseason replacement, Darryl Sutter of the Los Angeles Kings. Sutter and the Kings were victorious over DeBoer’s New Jersey Devils. The second time, DeBoer’s opposite was Mike Sullivan of the Penguins. Sullivan was also a midseason replacement and he too was on the Cup-winning side. A midseason coaching change isn’t an obstacle to winning a Stanley Cup.

Should the Sharks falter and miss the playoffs, DeBoer is as good as gone. Should they put themselves at risk for missing the playoffs, well, things shouldn’t get to that point without a change. The Sharks lost the opening game of their current road trip to the Golden Knights. Next up are the Buffalo Sabres, winners of nine straight. This is followed by a game against another top team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who dominated the Sharks recently at the Shark Tank. Could DeBoer go from having his team in first place to the hot seat in less than a week? Stranger things have happened.

The long history of coming up short in the playoffs, the not too far down the road end of the Joe Thornton era and the talent of this season’s roster are all reasons why the Sharks must succeed in the playoffs this season. Preaching patience won’t cut it. This isn’t a building team, it is built. Right now, the Sharks have elite talent playing close to average hockey. Sharks broadcaster Brodie Brazil captured the zeitgeist in his recent tweet:

As long as Quenneville remains unemployed and the Sharks are playing below their talent, DeBoer remains vulnerable. Not because the Sharks are a bad team or DeBoer is a bad coach, but because this franchise needs this season’s team to finally get to hockey’s pinnacle. It is an all-in season. Quenneville has proven he can accomplish what the Sharks haven’t which is why the ‘Q’ question looms large.