Todd McLellan left the Sharks as mutually as any breakup can be. McLellan wanted a new challenge and Sharks players seemed ready for a new voice in the locker room. Of the available coaches, the Sharks could have done much worse than Pete DeBoer — but the reaction to his hiring was met with relief more than excitement.
That might be unfair to DeBoer, who helped guide the Sharks back to the playoffs this season. As with any sport, the value of a coach is difficult to assess. I believe a bad coach can hurt a team much more than a good one can help them as even the best coaches have their quirks about them.
We documented Todd McLellan's obsession with grinders (hi Mike Brown) plenty over the years, but even with a full season watching DeBoer coach it's a bit tougher to pick out what exactly his tendencies are. That's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. I don't agree with all of his lineup decisions (dammit, not Mike Brown again), but DeBoer has done well with the top three lines and, as always, it's tough to know how much direction he's taking from higher up the food chain on these sorts of decisions.
DeBoer came to the Sharks with a reputation as a veteran-first coach and that has (mostly) held up. At the time of his hiring I was a little concerned about what that meant for San Jose's young players, particularly guys like Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi. Young players like Nikolay Goldobin and Mirco Mueller haven't gotten much of a chance, but that's more likely because they just haven't shown enough to deserve it as opposed to some sort of anti-youth bias by DeBoer.
What's more important, in my mind, is the way DeBoer has handled this veteran group. It seems like the team never practices given how frequently DeBoer gives this older-but-wiser group the day off — and that just might pay off come playoff time. In the Friedman 30 Thoughts column Thornton talked about DeBoer convincing him to take days off, something that certainly doesn't come naturally to Jumbo.
Three months from his 37th birthday, Thornton’s been fantastic. At five-on-five, the Sharks score 72 per cent of the goals when he’s on the ice. That’s the best number for any individual player this year. "Pete’s style is just a little different, it took a bit of time to get used to his system, but he’s a huge believer in the way I see the game…push, get into the forecheck, create havoc. He hasn’t asked me to change many things." Well, except one. Thornton was never interested in staying away from the rink. If anyone was there, he’d go on the ice. Even on days off, he'd go and work on his sticks. "He convinced me to stay away, get rest. The light turned on…it’s okay not to skate, not to work out. I’m a creature of habit. So I changed my mindset, and it definitely helped. My energy level, I feel so alive, no fatigue." What was it like sitting at home? "So strange," he laughed. "I didn’t know what to do, so I took the kids to school. Very strange."
That DeBoer was able to come in right away, establish a new captain in Joe Pavelski and get into the ear of Thornton that quickly speaks volumes. Thornton's willingness to listen may come from a new perspective, but DeBoer should get some credit for this. Coming into a locker room that is very much established can be difficult and DeBoer's hands off approach seems to have done the trick.
"He let his players play" isn't the sexiest storyline when you're voting for the Jack Adams, but it might be more valuable than we think. While some coaches meddle and try to change who their players are, DeBoer has been content to let his superstars carry his squad. Sometimes less is more.