Just as a canine’s life is measured in “Dog Years,” a New Jersey Devils coach’s tenure is measured in “Lou Years.”
With 248 games in four seasons before his firing on Dec. 26, Pete DeBoer would roughly be around Abe Vigoda’s age in “Lou Years.” It’s the longest streak of consecutive games for any coach Lou Lamoriello has hired, second only to Jacques Lemaire in total games coached (thanks to return engagements in 2009 and 2010).
What’s amazing about DeBoer’s run is that he presided over the last gasp of success for the Brodeur Era Devils, the 2012 Eastern Conference championship, and then two straight non-playoff seasons, the first time that’s happened since Lamoriello took over the team in 1987. In "Lou Years," another coach might not have made it past last season. But DeBoer was given another crack at it, and lasted 36 games, going 12-17-7.
Before we open the hood on this firing, I’ll say I liked DeBeor as a Devils fan. Not so much his tactics as his comportment. He’s still living off the brownie points he gained for stepping up and sparring with John Tortorella when he was with the New York Rangers, leading to the ultimate slap in his rabid foaming face when the Devils eliminated the Rangers in the 2012 conference final.
He was a swaggery, egotistic coach. I didn't mind that. But that also manifested in pig-headed decisions as well as stubbornness that would make a mule seem easily swayed by comparison.
The demise of Pete DeBoer comes down to factors: His decision-making with personnel, and the decision-making of that personnel that came from the ranks above him.
Let’s start with DeBoer, because it’s less complicated: His management of the goaltending position over the last two seasons contributed greatly to his demise.
Yes, having Martin Brodeur on the same roster as his replacement in 2013-14 made for difficult times and awkward decisions; but the organization’s inability to effectively pass the torch cost the Devils valuable points and, ultimately, a playoff spot.
This season … well, who in their right mind takes a goalie that’s never been the unchallenged starter, who’s played at most 45 games in a season, and skates him out to the crease in 20 consecutive games to start the season? Don’t give me “he had no faith in the backups”; if Schneider started 17 of those 20, who knows how many of the softies he yielded early in the season are erased. It was irresponsible, insane coaching.
Equally irresponsible was DeBoer’s refusal to give the Devils’ younger players the chances they needed to succeed over the last two seasons. He buried former No. 4 overall pick Adam Larsson. He punished Eric Gelinas for his defensive lapses, depriving the team of his offensive upside. (It should be said that he gave time to Jon Merrill; but Damon Severson’s emergence was more injury need that DeBoer allotting time for him to thrive.)
Those close to the team have told me that his refusal to go young hurt those players and hurt the team. It was a point of contention, internally, for the last year.
There were some factors beyond his control, like the Devils’ shootout disasters of the last two seasons and players like Patrik Elias having their numbers fall off a cliff. But DeBoer had his tactical flaws too, like loving some players in certain situations that the numbers didn’t back up.
But the real issue in his tenure was the players.
Not their performance. Their employment.
Ladies and germs, presenting the roster from Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Ilya Kovalchuk was there. Zach Parise was there. David Clarkson was there. Mark Fayne was there. Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky and Patrik Elias were all two years younger.
Ladies and germs, presenting the roster from Game 1 of the 2014-15 NHL season. No Kovalchuk, no Parise, no Clarkson, no Fayne; instead, it’s an ill-fitting collection of veteran mercenaries, desperate stop-gap fixes and a small number homegrown Devils that can be counted with one hand.
None of that is DeBoer’s fault. All of it is management and ownership’s fault, and much of the blame falls on Lamoriello’s wide shoulders.
It's really the same thing that happened to DeBoer in Florida, his only previous NHL gig. DeBoer made a great first impression, leading the team to a third-place finish in the division. Then talent went out the door at a record pace in Sunrise, and then DeBoer lost his job. As he said, in thinking about the Florida experience: "You have to have the horses to be successful in this league."
He had them in Year 1 with the Devils.
Then they left the barn.
Adversity visits every organization. Players retire, players want out, players take better deals elsewhere, players abandon active contracts to return to Russia. These things happen. The challenge is how an executive responds to that adversity.
For Lamoriello, that used to mean incredible shrewdness in player movement between teams and a scouting/drafting apparatus that was the envy of the league.
The Devils weren’t lucky in acquiring Scott Stevens from the Blues; Lamoriello fought for him as fair compensation for Brendan Shanahan, and won.
The Devils weren’t lucky in acquiring Scott Niedermayer; they flipped arguably their best offensive defenseman at the time for a first-round pick that became second overall.
Sylvain Turgeon for Claude Lemieux? Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson for Alex Mogilny? Jason Arnott for Zelepukin and Guerin? Flipping Arnott for Langenbrunner and Nieuwendyk? They gave and they got, and the results led to Stanley Cups.
But those moves predated the salary cap, and the fact is that the Devils have been a dramatically different and ineffective franchise since the 2005 lockout. Some of that comes from the rules changes that, frankly, never favored the way Lamoriello likes his team to play. But it also made player movement more difficult, and Lamoriello never was able to adjust.
The current roster has 15 players over the age of 30. The current Los Angeles Kings roster has six. Ditto the current Chicago Blackhawks roster. The team dabbled far too much in older unrestricted free agents in a young man’s league.
He did it out of necessity because the team’s incredible player personnel, scouting and drafting machine fell apart. Dave Lozo covered the demise of their drafting since 2005; they went from a team that built on the fly to a team that never knew how to rebuild.
The demise of DeBoer, to me, comes down to four significant departures, and the team’s inability to properly react to them.
The first is on the bench: The 2012 team had Larry Robinson coaching the defense and Adam Oates running special teams. They were every bit as vital as DeBoer in leading that team is the Stanley Cup Final, and their departures that following season were devastating. (Oates is rumored to be a potential replacement for DeBoer, which is super exciting news for a team that’s 25th at even strength – how low can they go?!)
The second is Parise, whose ego took a bashing during the acquisition of Kovalchuk, and understandably so. He left for the Minnesota Wild, spurning a comptitive Devils offer to go home.
The third is Kovalchuk. While the Devils received cap savings on his absurd deal when he left for the KHL, they simply never recovered from his absence as a franchise player. Lou’s scrambling to fill that void brought Jaromir Jagr to the Devils, but it also brought the offensive frustrations of Michael Ryder.
He answered the departure of David Clarkson with a terrible contact for Ryane Clowe. He responded to the lack of reinforcements in the AHL by taking fliers on Damien Brunner, Martin Havlat and Tuomo Ruutu.
The roster feels like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces borrowed from several different boxes.
This is not a good hockey team, no matter who’s behind the bench. Poorly constructed, shortsighted and desperate. Like a roster put together by someone looking for an immediate turnaround, lest new ownership wants to go in a different direction.
Just as a New Jersey Devils coach’s tenure is measured in “Lou Years,” an NHL general manger’s career has its own time span. Lamoriello has led the Devils since 1987, which basically makes him older than the NHL itself in “GM Years.”
DeBoer’s firing is the 19th coaching move Lamoriello’s made during his tenure. Based on the franchise’s downward spiral and his own diminishing returns, one wonders if it’s his last.