PITTSBURGH – NHL coaches are often depicted as cruel taskmasters that skate their teams into the ground and crush the spirits of players who don’t conform to their physically demanding standards.
And then there’s Peter DeBoer, man.
Like, practice, don’t practice. It’s cool, whatever.
“There was a stretch when he pretty much just told us, ‘Hey, you guys aren’t practicing anymore. You guys prepare hard enough,’” said San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski.
“A lot of days off. A lot of rest time. Guys have benefitted from that,” said defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
When DeBoer took over as head coach of the San Jose Sharks this season, he walked into a situation that was like a gumbo of stress and strain. The Sharks missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1998. Rumors swirled about the futures of stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and frankly that of the rest of the roster. The players had tuned out previous coach Todd McLellan. The captaincy was, at last check, being shared by roughly 30 players.
At that point, hiring a personality like that of Pete DeBoer was like hiring a loud Hawaiian shirt to be your head coach. Or a hammock. Or Jeffrey Lebowski (and not just because there are a couple of beards on the Sharks’ players that look like they belong submerged in a White Russian).
Darryl Sutter might have the market cornered on California-based Zen in the NHL, but Pete DeBoer is the League’s greatest slacker whisperer.
The first order of business for DeBoer was to figure out what approach would work with this group.
In the past, the laidback demeanor of the team, especially its stars, was demonized as the players "not caring enough." But what if the coaching staff leaned into that curve rather than attempting to force a work ethic on players that wouldn’t take to it?
Considering the amount of travel the Sharks had, DeBoer thought it best to build in as many off days and optional practices that he could. It was, to say the least, an unusual change for the Sharks, many of whom had been hardwired to practice as often as possible. To wit, while the practices were optional, DeBoer found too many Sharks were taking the option.
“It was a little weird halfway through the season, when he saw all of us always going out for optionals and he was kicking us off the ice,” said Patrick Marleau. “It wasn’t something we were used to, but you can see it pay off later in the season. He wants us 100-percent for important games.”
Perhaps that rest and the lack of grinding practice time aren't the sole reasons the San Jose Sharks are playing for their first Stanley Cup beginning Monday at the Pittsburgh Penguins. But it’s one significant reason.
“He identified that from the get-go. Rest throughout the year really pays off at this time of year. He’s done a great job in managing guys’ minutes. He’s managed to keep the veteran guys here fresh,” said forward Tommy Wingels. “And he’s managed to give the younger guys a rest too.”
Like, for example, Tomas Hertl. He followed his outstanding rookie season with a 13-goal dud in 2014-15. Now, at 22 years old, Hertl had 21 goals in the regular season and five more in 18 playoffs games.
“We had a lot of optional skating. Relaxing. Making everybody feel good. I know [Joe Thornton] was really excited when he got a lot of optional practices. He go skate, or no. And we feel great all season,” said Hertl.
“Everybody says ‘you’re young. You should be all the time skating,’ but I don’t think so. It’s an 82-game season. We fly most in the NHL. So we have a lot of optional skates. If you want to skate, you skate. If not, you get some rest. Maybe some bike. I felt really good, all year. Last year, it was all the time skating and I was like ‘oh my god I am so tired.’ I think it’s a big thing. Everybody felt good.”
That includes their head coach, who’s come a long way from being fired on Christmas Day.
If it’s his first season with a team, then DeBoer is probably doing really well.
In 1995, DeBoer was given his first coaching gig by Jim Rutherford, who is now the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins. DeBoer was the coach and GM of the Detroit Whalers, and led the team to first place and into the third round of the OHL playoffs.
In 2001, DeBoer and his assistant Steve Spott left the Whalers for the Kitchener Rangers, who went from 10 games under .500 to third place in their division under his watch. He eventually won the Memorial Cup with the Rangers in 2008, which was his calling card for potential NHL jobs that were open.
One of them was in San Jose, who turfed Ron Wilson in 2008. DeBoer was a finalist for that opening, but was passed over for McLellan, then an assistant coach under Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings.
“The only thing he didn’t have on his resume was NHL experience,” said GM Doug Wilson of DeBoer
DeBoer was a finalist with the Ottawa Senators as well, but opted to take over the Florida Panthers, leading them to their highest point total since 1999-2000 and missing the playoffs in a tie-breaker with the Montreal Canadiens.
He’d coach the Panthers for three more season before he was fired after the 2010-11 season. He was hired by the New Jersey Devils in 2011-12, and once again it was instant success: DeBoer led the Devils on a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final, with a 39-year-old Martin Brodeur leading the way.
His run in New Jersey last three more seasons, the team missing the playoffs in each one. It ended in Dec. 2014.
A year ago, DeBoer had just come off leading Canada to the gold medal in the IIHF world hockey championships, a job he was offered after the Devils fired him, and a job which he says “got the juices flowing” for coaching.
“I was in the process of getting together with Doug to talk about the San Jose job,” he said. “In the five months prior to that – after getting fired on Christmas – I didn’t do much of anything. Sat around. Coached my son’s team. Drove my wife crazy.”
Yes, Christmas Day. Lou Lamoriello is the Grinch.
“He did wait until late in the day before he fired me. We were well past the presents,” said DeBoer, laughing.
“Lou’s played a huge role in my coaching development. I loved working for him. A lot of the things I brought to San Jose were influences from Lou.”
Sharks forward Dainius Zubrus played for DeBoer in New Jersey. “He’s a very good coach, but the thing I’ve noticed about him is that he keeps it what it is. Whether you play a good game and you lose, he’ll tell you to stick with it. Sometimes you don’t play well and win a game, and you’re going to hear that too. He keeps it honest,” he said.
“You come every day to the rink and there are no mind games.”
Another thing that DeBoer has repeated from his days with the Devils: Surrounding himself with an elite staff.
In New Jersey, he had Adam Oates and Larry Robinson. In San Jose, he has Steve Spott, his old junior assistant, was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs and recruited to run the power play. Bob Boughner, who spent the last four seasons as Windsor Spitfires head coach, runs the penalty kill. Former NHL goalie Johan Hedberg has worked wonders with goalie Martin Jones as an assistant coach and goalie guru.
“Just as a team is the sum of all their parts, so is a coaching staff,” said Wilson. “But his leadership is off the charts.”
Why was Peter DeBoer able to get more out of this Sharks team than anyone else could? Why was he the right coach at the right time?
“He wants this team to play is the right way to play, and I think he’s gotten everyone to buy into that. He gets the most out of every guy, and demands we play the right way,” said Wingels.
“You gotta realize that you’re not going to score a goal every shift. There’s a lot more responsibility in your own zone, in the neutral zone, in special teams to impact the game. He preaches a full 200-foot game. He demands smart placement with the puck. He demands forechecking, and I think we play a forechecking game.”
The word “calm” was uttered by more than a few players.
“He has a calmness on the bench. You can’t tell if we’re up two or down two. Everything is even-keeled,” said Logan Couture.
“He’s a nice guy off the ice. Calm,” said Vlasic. “He knows how to get the guys motivated without getting mad at them.”
While optional practices and days off were the norm, it wasn’t like Pete DeBoer was running a Club Med.
“When we need it, he’ll give it to us,” said Couture.
“As laidback as he looks, he’s a competitor. And we feel that,” said Pavelski.
And that’s the key, really. You have a coach whose temperament fits the team, and team that didn’t know it needed that temperament until it arrived. Laidback is as laidback does.
DeBoer abides, man.
“Well, we’re in the Stanley Cup Final, so I guess he’s the right guy,” said Vlasic.
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