Last summer, the New Jersey Devils and Peter DeBoer were something of kindred spirits.
One was a successful franchise down on its luck after missing the playoffs for just the third time in 22 years. The other was an out-of-work head coach with a dreary outlook after being fired from his first NHL job.
So it seemed befitting that the pair would find each other, and the relationship that was first fostered when Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello tabbed DeBoer as the unlikely choice to return New Jersey to glory has already proven rewarding — and quicker, perhaps, than anyone could have imagined.
In just one season, DeBoer has transformed the culture in the Devils’ locker room and made winners out of the NHL’s oldest team once again.
DeBoer got New Jersey back to the playoffs, and now — on the wings of tough defense, top-notch goaltending and timely goal scoring — he’s got them four wins from the franchise’s fourth championship, with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final set for Wednesday against the Los Angeles Kings.
Not bad for a guy who couldn’t cut it with the Florida Panthers.
"Oh, honored," a humble DeBoer said after his team’s 4-2 series win over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final when asked how he felt to be the coach led New Jersey back to the Stanley Cup.
"I mean, I was out of work last June and July and got a call from Hall of Fame general manager who recognized some of the work I had done in Florida and gave me a chance to work with a group of guys that have a great blend of veteran presence Stanley Cup brings.
"They know how to win and a lot of great young players coming through, so I’m fortunate to be sitting here. It could have been a number of different candidates that (Lamoriello) talked to, and I’m thankful that I got the opportunity."
The No. 6 seed Devils are exceeding expectations now, having knocked off the No. 1, 3 and 5 teams in the East to set up their matchup with Kings, the No. 8 seed in the West. But early on, it seemed that DeBoer, who failed to make the playoffs in either of his two seasons with the Panthers, was going to struggle with his latest opportunity as much as he did with his first.
New Jersey started the season 12-12-1 in DeBoer’s first 25 games on the bench, and at the All-Star break — a weekend that was strangely devoid of Devils players — the Devils were 26-19-3.
A 9-2 start to the second half of the season got New Jersey moving in the right direction, and six straight wins to end the season gave the Devils a fourth-place finish in the impossibly tough Atlantic Division and the No. 6 seed in the East — a deceiving seed for a team that had as many points (102) as No. 2 seed Boston, and eight more points than their first-round opponent, Florida.
In that opening round, DeBoer got his first taste of redemption, knocking off his former team and their new coach, Kevin Dineen, in seven games. Then the Devils eliminated the rival Philadelphia Flyers with four straight victories to close a 4-1 second-round series win before knocking off another division foe when they bounced the Rangers back across the Hudson in the Eastern Conference Final.
"You know, this is a resilient group," DeBoer said. "We’ve just been getting better and better. Just like our season, you know, we talked about a slow build.
"We were a little tentative through the first round against Florida. I thought we really found another level against Philly, and we needed another level against the Rangers with the team they had. So we’re trending in the right direction, and I think we’re playing our best hockey right now."
The Devils have unquestionably hit their stride, and though he’s not the type to admit it, DeBoer is a large reason for the turnaround. Fortunately, his players have no problem putting their coach on a pedestal.
"We’ve got a coach we believe in and (who) really put in a system that works for us — that really kind of accommodates to our players," said Devils captain Zach Parise. "We’ve talked about it all along, throughout this whole playoffs, but really, we all can’t say enough about what he’s done for us and how well he’s made us prepared for every game and every series.”
Parise (seven goals, seven assists) has led the way on offense for New Jersey in the playoffs, along with Ilya Kovalchuk (seven goals, 11 assists) and Travis Zajac (seven goals, five assists), and Martin Brodeur has been stellar in net, as usual, with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.
What can’t be measured, however, is the impact a positive outlook has had on the Devils.
“We’re all really happy,” Parise said. “We believe in what Pete wants us to do, and that goes a long way. We can’t say enough about the job that he’s done with us, and we all love playing for him, and it’s a lot easier to play like that."
The tough thing about coaching is that success is as fleeting, and nowhere is that truer than in New Jersey, where Parise and defenseman Bryce Salvador are set to be restricted free agents and Brodeur, now 40-years-old, still continues to defy the laws of aging but can only continue to do so for so much longer — all factors that could change the outlook for the Devils going forward. Not to mention the fact that key role players in these playoffs Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier will all be free agents this summer, along with Brodeur’s backup Johan Hedberg.
And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, in the past, success has not necessarily led to longevity for New Jersey head men. Larry Robinson took over as interim coach late in the 2000 season, eventually leading the Devils to a Stanley Cup championship that spring, and the next year, he had New Jersey back in the final, where they lost to Colorado.
After a slow start to his second full season, however, Robinson was fired, replaced eventually by Pat Burns, who won a Cup in his first season — with Robinson as an assistant — before stepping down after his second due to health reasons.
All told, the Devils have had nine coaches since the end of Jacques Lemaire’s first reign — plus two more returns to the bench for Lemaire — and none of those coaches have lasted more than two years. Perhaps that’s why DeBoer is so appreciative of the opportunity he has now and makes certain that he’s making the most of it.
"These moments you enjoy," said DeBoer, who coached 13 years in the Ontario Hockey League before getting his first NHL shot. "It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first year or your fifth year. . . . You don’t get picky when these opportunities come along. You enjoy every minute of it, as much as you can, because it’s awful tough to get here."