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At first blush there is not a lot to recommend a guy like Peter DeBoer as a viable head-coaching option in the NHL.
He has just 217 career wins in 494 games, and one playoff appearance. This is over six-ish seasons worth of hockey (obviously he only coached 48 post-lockout, then got fired 36 games into this season) and, well, one playoff appearance in seven years, on its surface, seems to be the kind of thing that San Jose should be trying like hell to avoid. And yet here they are hiring this guy, who has broken 40 wins in a season just twice, and none since 2011-12.
This is basically Doug Wilson's job on the line here, and he hires a guy with that coaching résumé?
You can see why Sharks fans would be tugging at their collars.
But what that ignores is a number of factors that do not show the situations into which DeBoer was thrust and over which he had no control.
For instance, in 2008-09, he took over the Florida Panthers in his first-ever NHL head coaching gig (for context: this was so long ago that it was before Jay Bouwmeester signed in Calgary). When you're in that position you can't be choosy. That year the Panthers finished with 93 points, and they actually had a decent team. There was 25-year-old Stephen Weiss back when he was reliably in the 60-point range, 24-year-old David Booth when he looked like he might turn into something, and pre-injuries Nathan Horton at 23. On the back end his top pairing was 25-year-old Bouwmeester and (playing almost 27 minutes a night!) and aging Bryan McCabe, but also a 26-year-old Keith Ballard as the No. 3. In net, Tomas Vokoun when he was still putting up big numbers.
The next season the team crashed down to 77 points. Why? A number of veterans started to show their age, Bouwmeester jetted to Calgary, and the team's shooting percentage dropped almost a full point. The next year, his final one behind the bench in Sunrise, the Panthers put up just 72 points because even more contributors got even older (Cory Stillman dropped from about 50 points to 23 in a three-season span), Horton and Dennis Seidenberg got traded, and so on.
What basically ended up happening was DeBoer coached this team in the final years before management should have opted for a tear-it-down rebuild. Instead, the Panthers went out and signed close to a dozen mediocre NHLers, tried like hell to get into overtime every night, and made the playoffs under Kevin Dineen despite winning just 38 games. After that: Predictable disaster, with point totals of 36 (in the lockout-shortened season; that's a pace for 61.5 points over 82 games) and 66 the next two years before a slight return to form under Gerard Gallant, the fourth Panthers coach in five seasons.
But by then, DeBoer had of course taken over the New Jersey Devils, and immediately drove that team to that improbable Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2012. That team featured 28-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk, 27-year-old Zach Parise, a still-useful Patrik Elias at 35. It also had the 30-goal season from David Clarkson, strong defensive performances from guys like Andy Greene and Mark Fayne, and the last season in which Martin Brodeur was even semi-presentable as an NHL starter (and he was still bad).
In short, he once again took over a team with a healthy mix of veterans and youthful talent, and got more out of them than their previous coach could or should have.
Then the decline. Parise left that summer, Elias led the team in scoring with just 36 points in 48 games. Clarkson turned back into David Clarkson, Kovalchuk missed almost a quarter of the season, Brodeur was a dumpster fire, and so on. They finished on an 82-point pace, but probably would have done better — i.e. “made the playoffs” — were it not for the team getting just three wins from 13 overtime appearances. They were, in fact, the best possession team in the league that year.
Then the next year, they posted 88 points as Brodeur kept getting starts he didn't deserve, Kovalchuk “retired” to the KHL, and every veteran on the team got a year closer to calling it a career. The Devils also won just nine of their 27(!) overtime games, including going 0 for 13 in the shootout, after the previous season's 2 for 8. But in this season, too, they were an elite possession club, finishing second in the league in CF%.
Then after 36 more games in which his team, now completely bereft of talent, went 12-17-7 (and 2 for 8 in the shootout!), DeBoer was once again on the outs. At the time, the Devils were, finally, a sub-50 possession team because Lou Lamoriello managed the roster into the ground.
Those indicate some very strong numbers, and that he was keeping the team afloat in terms of overall quality even when it really didn't deserve to be there. Maybe if DeBoer had received decent goaltending in New Jersey, or gotten more bounces in the shootout, he still has a job in New Jersey.
The shootout stats are particularly insane. With both Florida and New Jersey, DeBoer is a career 29-57 (.337, versus the league average of .500), with his players shooting 71 of 276 (25.7 percent versus a league average of about 36 percent), and his goalies saving .614 (versus a league average of about .645). We can all agree that apart from putting guys on the shootout roster, DeBoer had no control over what happened on the ice at that point of the game, and the fact that his shooters and goalies alike were so terrible for so long basically ruined his career. If they'd been league average, they probably tack on 14 extra wins to his career total, which would theoretically make him a coach with more than one playoff appearance.
Because here's the thing: DeBoer could be seen as a guy for whom the strong, strong possession stats are there but the results are not. “Proof analytics don't work,” and all that. And it's true to an extent; even leaving aside the shootouts, DeBoer teams are 161-200 in regulation (.446). But look what he's had to work with, and look what he wrung out of those rosters, which ranged from mediocre with some promising players to outright poor:
He doesn't spend much time south of 50 percent, does he? His teams are, in fact, really good at holding onto the puck. But of course holding the puck is only 60 percent of results, and DeBoer has caught the brunt of the other 40 pretty hard, and maybe you say some of that is his fault.
Except by the reckoning of War on Ice, New Jersey dominated in a stat called “high-danger scoring chances” —those coming right around the net — basically the entire time DeBoer was there, finishing second in the league at 54.4 percent over 272 games. Interestingly, only San Jose (55.5 percent) was better. But these numbers are actually fascinating.
This says to me that DeBoer is pretty good at coaching to what his team is capable of doing. He felt he could play a little more run-and-gun in Florida and generated more chances than his predecessors, but also conceded more (which, I would guess, has to do with the loss of personnel on the back end). Nonetheless, he actually improved the team's share of these high-risk chances — albeit marginally — during his tenure.
Then when he gets to New Jersey, he sees what he has and says, “We have to go ultra-conservative.”
In terms of both generating and conceding chances, the Devils played the lowest of low-event hockey in the league, but did a great job in particular of keeping the other team away from their crease. What really hurt was that, among goaltenders with at least 2,000 minutes from the time DeBoer was hired to when he was canned, Martin Brodeur had the third-lowest 5-on-5 save percentage on high-danger shots in the league (just .803, behind only Ondrej Pavelec and Tim Thomas).
And would it surprise you to learn that, during the same time, the Devils had the sixth-lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league? Of course it wouldn't.
What all these numbers say to me is that DeBoer is probably going to do well when it comes to plugging the breaches in the hull of the S.S. Doug Wilson's Job Security. He seems to be a competent coach who can improve his teams in a number of ways, but who has suffered from teams that have carried progressively worsening rosters throughout his tenure. (Not that I'm confident Wilson will be able to guarantee him protection from the same fate in his new job.)
Will DeBoer save the Sharks? Unless Wilson has a grand plan to replace Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau with equivalent young future Hall of Famers in the next year or two, you'd have to think the answer is “probably not.”
But when it comes to trying to salvage something from a roster that should always have been capable of winning a Stanley Cup, he's better than anyone else they could have gotten.
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