Of all the changes to hit the Sharks over the past year-plus, one of the biggest was the departure of long-time coach Todd McLellan. While TMac's sometimes-inexplicable player deployment and his love of Mike Brown caused many headaches, his 291 wins, 2008-09 President's Trophy, and two trips to the Conference Finals made for a tough act to follow. Stepping into his shoes weeks later was former Panthers and Devils boss Peter DeBoer, owner of an undistinguished 217-200-77 record and one playoff appearance across seven NHL seasons. DeBoer now faces the tall task of guiding a
cursed gutless gifted but aging lineup to the franchise's first Stanley Cup. So, what should we expect from "PDB" in San Jose?
Of course, buried in his mediocre record is a ton of context worth considering. Most hockey fans judge coaches by wins and losses, or success in the playoffs, and stats-focused writers often point to things like team-level possession as a measure of whether a coach's systems "work". But all this assumes that the talent to win games and dominate possession is available, and that success is just a matter of using it effectively. Yet the level of on-ice talent isn't generally under a coach's control. To judge the performance of someone like DeBoer, you have to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the rosters he was given. With that, let's take a look back.
The Florida Years
DeBoer was hired as the coach in Florida prior to the 2008-09 season, and lasted three seasons before being fired. If you're a Western Conference fan who doesn't know much about the Panthers, here's a quick summary: in 21 seasons, they've made the playoffs four times, with all three of their series wins as a franchise coming in 1996. Prior to DeBoer's hiring, the Cats traded Roberto Luongo for Todd Bertuzzi in 2006 (if you've read a lot of those "worst trades in sports history" articles, you've probably heard about it), and followed that by finishing with 86 points despite a very strong 54.8% score-adjusted Corsi in 2006-07. (To blame: 0.899 goaltending at even strength from Alex Auld and a 41-year-old Ed Belfour.) They remedied their mistake at high cost on Draft Day 2007, sending three high picks to Nashville for Tomas Vokoun, and the emergence of Craig Anderson as a backup gave them one of the league's best goalie tandems in 2007-08. Unfortunately, no one other than Olli Jokinen and Nathan Horton could score for them that season, and they finished with just 85 points, well out of the postseason.
Jumping into his first NHL coaching gig in 2008, DeBoer's job in Florida immediately got harder, as Jokinen was traded to Phoenix that summer. His task looked something like this: try to wring offense out of a punchless lineup, while somewhat limiting the high-quality chances against Vokoun and Anderson. Interestingly, though Florida's rate of shots against ballooned up to 59 Corsi attempts per 60 5v5 minutes, and they were one of the league's weakest possession teams, there was no increase in the rate of high-danger chances they allowed. Their rate of shot creation was largely unchanged (despite the loss of Jokinen, who is still the Panthers' all-time leading scorer), but behind talented young players such as Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss, and David Booth, as well as excellent seasons from both their goalies, Florida finished tied for 8th in the Eastern Conference with 93 points, losing a tiebreaker for the last playoff spot to Montreal.
Unfortunately, this was the high point of DeBoer's time in Florida. After years of trade rumors, Bouwmeester was dealt to Calgary in the 2009 offseason. Between the loss of their top defenseman and a head injury that cost Booth all but 28 games, the Panthers were a disaster on the ice in 2009-10, tumbling down to 14th in the East with 77 points. Vokoun once again offered strong work in goal, with an adjusted 5v5 Sv% of 0.937, but he spent the season under siege, as the Panthers allowed 11% more high-danger shots and 22% more medium-danger shots than average. Contrary to his reputation, and likely reflecting the lack of depth and talent on Florida's roster, DeBoer gave considerable ice time to young players that season, including 21-year-old Michael Frolik and 19-year-old Dmitry Kulikov. The following offseason, Horton was traded to Boston, and an uncharacteristically poor year from Vokoun contributed to an ugly 72-point season in 2010-11. The team's defensive schemes in DeBoer's final season showed real improvement, as their rates of shots and high-danger chances against fell back to league-average. Unsurprisingly for a team hemorrhaging offensive skill, their scoring woes persisted, and they finished last in the Eastern Conference. After firing DeBoer that offseason, the Panthers made a slew of player acquisitions (including ex-Shark Brian Campbell), and rode the last good year of Jose Theodore and the abysmal quality of the Southeast Division to an unexpected first-place finish. They would lose an unwatchable first-round series, to, of all teams, DeBoer's Devils, and finished last in the NHL in 2012-13 and 29th in 2013-14. Florida has already had three coaches since DeBoer, and remains a long shot to see the postseason this year.
The New Jersey Years
DeBoer's time in New Jersey presents a different sort of context: in contrast to the Panthers, the Devils have won three Stanley Cups and made five trips to the Final in just the past two decades. This run of success came courtesy an extremely organized defensive system and the brilliance of goalie Martin Brodeur. Of course, given what we know about goaltender aging curves, you'll want to cue up the scary music when I mention that Brodeur was 39 in DeBoer's first season behind the New Jersey bench. The Devils had topped 100 points and won the Atlantic Division in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, but slumped to an awful 81-point season in 2010-11. It didn't help that injury had limited Zach Parise to just 13 games, but Brodeur's Sv% fell to a woeful 0.910. New Jersey was a solid puck-control team that season, and still allowed the 9th-fewest goals in the league, but they were the lowest-scoring team in the NHL. So, DeBoer was once again tasked with finding offense, while also trying to protect a declining goalie at the other end.
The result, beginning with the 2011-12 season, was a team that played a smothering defensive game and, at least initially, was able to drive a solid attack through Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, and David Clarkson. New Jersey's rate of shot creation was meager, but betting on a player like Kovalchuk to put home an above-average number of high-quality chances was a wise idea. At the other end, Brodeur and backup Johan Hedberg had a tough time dealing with high-danger chances, but those chances were few and far between under DeBoer. New Jersey finished with 102 points, which in a tough Atlantic was good for only fourth place, and began the postseason as a sixth seed. That postseason would be the pinnacle of DeBoer's career to date, as the Devils won three rounds and came within two wins of lifting another Cup.
Much like his time in Florida, however, the positives largely ended after DeBoer's first season. With ownership looking to sell, the Devils chose not to match Minnesota's massive free-agent offer to Parise. But with their best player gone, and with Adam Henrique and Mark Fayne the team's only key contributors under 27, New Jersey probably should have begun rebuilding in 2012. Instead, GM Lou Lamoriello made no significant additions in 2012-13, and in 2013-14, he traded for a goalie of the future in Cory Schneider and added aging forwards to the roster. Neither team reached the playoffs. Analytically-inclined fans remember this era of New Jersey hockey for its outstanding puck possession; only Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston had a higher score-adjusted Corsi than the Devils' 54.9% over these two seasons. A glance at the team's Hextally page for these seasons on WAR on Ice suggests that New Jersey's rate of shot creation in medium- and high-danger areas was about average, though they took 15% fewer shots from distance than the average NHL team. Their rates of shots allowed were extremely low in all areas of the defensive zone. New Jersey's attack was sunk by converting high-danger chances at a rate 26% below average (Kovalchuk's injury issues in 2012-13 and his departure to the KHL surely didn't help), and their goaltending, even with a half-season of Schneider, was a disaster. In addition to below-average save percentages from the high- and medium-danger areas, Brodeur et al. allowed a shocking number of low-danger goals as well.
Last season, New Jersey finally parted ways with Brodeur, and entered the campaign with even more expensive veterans up front. While Schneider delivered tremendous play in his first year as the team's clear starter, the Devils stumbled badly out of the gate, mostly due to a punchless attack and dreadful penalty killing. After just 12 wins in their first 36 games, DeBoer was fired the day after Christmas. The team's score-adjusted Corsi in those games was a middling 49.5%; over the final 46, this number plummeted to 45.1% under the three-headed coaching monster of Lamoriello, Scott Stevens, and Adam Oates. Under the new regime, the Devils allowed 3 more shots against per game, and took 5 fewer themselves. For a team with trouble scoring, this was not a good thing, and New Jersey missed the playoffs again after going just 20-19-7 in the second half.
What Sharks Fans Should Expect
Whether it's DeBoer in San Jose, or Mike Babcock in Toronto, or McLellan in Edmonton, it's easy for fans and teams to believe that a new coach can be the missing ingredient that turns them from a laughingstock into a contender, or that pushes them over the top to that long-awaited Cup triumph. Yet a coach's success or failure depends heavily on the competence of the GM above him. Not even the best coach is a miracle-worker.
In the case of DeBoer, it's hard to separate his poor NHL record from the limited talent he was given in Florida and New Jersey. Both teams saw the exodus of key players during his tenure, and in retrospect, each was on the verge of a major rebuild at the time he was hired. In contrast, San Jose offers the chance to work with a lineup that's built to win now, with plenty of high-end talent and depth up and down the roster. The Sharks also possess a wealth of attacking skill, a luxury DeBoer has rarely had at this level. Moreover, he's shown an ability to adapt his team's style to the strengths and weaknesses of his players, something McLellan was not always able to do. Given the inexperience of Martin Jones and the talent and foot speed on San Jose's blueline, it's probably fair to expect the team to play a more conservative style that limits dangerous chances, while counting on its offensive skill to create havoc up front. In the best case, this might look like a slower, lower-event version of the team's style in 2013-14. The slew of early-season injuries haven't helped this sort of system to gel, but it's something I plan to watch closely throughout 2015-16.