Peter DeBoer makes some sense as the Maple Leafs’ next head coach

Peter DeBoer makes some sense as the Maple Leafs’ next head coach

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Head coach Peter DeBoer’s three-year contract with the New Jersey Devils is set to expire at season’s end.

(Warning: What follows is a long-winded analysis of a potential head coaching candidate for the Maple Leafs, who haven’t yet fired their own coach, when said future candidate is still currently under contract with another team).

While Lou Lamiorello recently endorsed the work of DeBoer and his staff despite a second-consecutive season out of the playoffs, there appears to be an opportunity here if the Maple Leafs are interested — which, it just so happens, jives with the latest dispatch from the rumour mill. The Devils are financially strapped and the Maple Leafs are in a position to offer DeBoer whatever it takes in terms of a contract offer, as well as the allure of returning home (DeBoer is a Dunnville, Ontario native) to work alongside the familiar likes of new Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan (appears to be a connection here), Steve Spott (a long history together in junior), David Clarkson (a long history together in New Jersey and Kitchener) and Nazem Kadri (an OHL championship together in Kitchener, DeBoer is a known ‘Naz’ fan). And get this: The Leafs are the team who drafted DeBoer in the 12th round in 1988 (worked like magic with Randy Carlyle).

After three season with no playoff appearances at the helm of the Florida Panthers (tied for 8th in his first season and lost the tie breaker, fired after the Panthers’ finished last in the East in 2010-11), DeBoer arrived in New Jersey with the operative of infusing some offensive creativity into the Devils’ game, set on melding the new mindset with the long-standing tenets of puck possession and defence-first philosophy in New Jersey. DoBoer’s first season was a success and then some, as the Devils went from scoring a laughable 2.08 goals-per-game (during the horrible season with John MacLean, leading to Lamiorello’s takeover behind the bench) to a more productive 2.63 goals-per-game team while sacrificing nothing in the defensive end of the rink (from 2.52 GA/G down to 2.50). The Devils went on to become Eastern Conference Champions, unexpected Stanley Cup Finalists, before losing out in six to the 2012 playoff juggernaut LA Kings.

After the run to the Finals in 2012, DeBoer’s Devils have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons despite strong underlying stats indicating possession, shot suppression and goal prevention have been the least of their issues. This season, the Devils allowed fewer shots than any team in the League, the 7th-fewest goals, and are 7th-best in CF% and FF% (even better in score close situations). They were undone by a bottom-five .906 team save percentage — with a deteriorating Martin Brodeur getting fed undeserved starts for reasons of ego and past accomplishments in NJ — and an inability to generate enough shots (below Toronto at 26.8 per game, 27th in the League) and goals (2.4, 26th in the League), with the losses of Parise, Clarkson and Kovalchuk since the Cup run playing a significant role. The Devils might have gotten away with a dormant offense if they could have won a respectable share of their shootouts, where they moved to 0-13 after Friday night’s loss. A failure to collect extra shootout points essentially kept them out of a playoff spot. Put simply, the Devils have been the anti-Leafs this season; goaltending, goal scoring and shootouts are three things the Leafs can do, while strong possession play and defence are two things few teams do worse.

I’m very comfortable with the system we play. It gives us a chance. You don’t really have to be the most talented team in the league. We beat teams – Boston, Pittsburgh, L.A. Anaheim, St. Louis. We beat those teams. With the system we play and everybody knows what we’re doing, it gives us a huge chance. It’s very important to me. Then, it’s up to us how we play. But the system we’ve got, I really like.”

-  Jaromir Jagr, earlier this season.

This isn’t to say DeBoer’s arrival will immediately qualify the current personnel group to possess the puck more and defend better, but the the hope is that DeBoer could bring the systems and the mindset that initiate the required sea change in the Leafs’ approach to possession play. The Leafs have no shortage of offensive weaponry and creativity when on their game, but they must develop an ability to possess the puck more and take care of their own end of the rink. Glaring failures in those areas don’t fall entirely at Randy Carlyle’s feet, but it’s difficult to argue he has been getting anything but the worst out of the current group when it comes to the possessional and defensive elements of the game. His swarm system has been such a disaster that other teams, in their prescout, are basically concluding there’s no defensive system in place in Toronto at all. One of the worst-known insults for an NHL team to receive as a collective group is to be depicted as “easy to play against,” and it’s leaked out in the media that the opposition has been attributing that dubious distinction to this Leafs team for much of the season.Peter_Deboer_vs_Randy_Carlyle_Fenwick.png

It’s been said time and again, but allowing as many shots as expansion franchises is a major red flag when it comes to the performance of those coaching the Leafs’ — few would argue — reasonably-talented roster. This is an improved roster, talent wise, from the dismal Ron Wilson days, and yet the underlying stats suggest the team is considerably worse at controlling play. Worse yet, shot totals have been routinely dismissed under the rationale that the Leafs’ internal scoring chance count often is closer to even than the lopsided shots split (even then, what’s being deemed a scoring chance is subjective and some of the reported scoring chance numbers – from the St. Louis game especially – have been dubious at best). Contrast Carlyle and his staff’s approach to the shots against issue with Steve Spott’s swift rebuke of his team when the Marlies  gave up 43 shots  against to the Rochester Americans in late March. Hopefully the latter response is the level of accountability we’ll see under the next coaching regime.

Speaking of which…

Steve Spott and Peter DeBoer

Toronto Marlies head coach coach Steve Spott and Peter DeBoer started coaching together for the OHL Plymouth Whalers in 1997.  The two had known each other through common friend Adam Graves, who played with DeBoer for Windsor of the OHL. Spott was Graves’ best man at his wedding, and Graves his.

DeBoer approached Spott for the position of Assistant Coach with the Plymouth Whalers just after Spott had won the 1994 OCAA Championship with Seneca College. From there, the pair formed a strong bond and a common understanding on how the game should be played and coached. The duo ran the Plymouth bench for four seasons and became joined at the hip.

DeBoer was offered the Head Coaching position with the Kitchener Rangers in 2001, and Spott joined him as his Assistant again. They would coach in Kitchener until 2008, winning the 2003 Memorial Cup, and falling just short of another in their final season together in 2007-08.

When DeBoer went to Florida as the newly-appointed head coach, he tried to bring Spott along with him; however, concerns about nepotism played a part in Spott’s decision to stay in Kitchener.

Spott’s nephew, Stephen Weiss, played for the Florida Panthers and Spott felt like this was a fork in the road for both he and DeBoer — he wasn’t comfortable coaching his nephew and there was some negative feedback about a potentially developing situation.

“We are like brothers. We are godparents to each other’s children. I owe everything to Pete. He gave me the opportunity 17 years ago.”

- Steve Spott

There is an obvious benefit to having the head coach of the NHL team and head coach of the AHL team share a similar hockey brain and a strong personal relationship. It can foster a strong continuity (expectations, systems, a consistent message) in the player development process from one level to the next. To get entirely too far ahead of oneself, it’s even possible Spott would get the nod as one of DeBoer’s assistants, like old times, if DeBoer were to wind up in Toronto. Spott, by all indications, seems to be doing an excellent job from both a player development and results perspective in his first season with the Marlies, handily eclipsing expectations entering the year when it comes to wins and losses while overseeing the emergence of some positive developments in the prospect stable down on the farm (Just to name a few: Leivo became the first rookie 20-goal scorer in Marlies history, Greg McKegg and Sam Carrick have emerged as “legitimate NHL prospects” at least according to Spott, Granberg and Percy have steadily improved on the backend, and we could also credit TJ Brennan and Spencer Abbott’s banner years as part of his successes).

David Clarkson

The history between DeBoer and Clarkson dates back to their Kitchener Ranger days, when Deboer’s Rangers won the Memorial Cup in 2003 (Clarkson was traded to Kitchener that season at age 18, playing alongside Mike Richards, Gregory Campbell and Derek Roy). Two years later, the undrafted Clarkson’s 33 goals in 51 games in his final season in Kitchener earned him his first NHL contract with the Devils in August of 2005. After four seasons spent in the 12-13 minute, 15-30pt range (while DeBoer went on another Mem Cup run before joining Florida for three seasons), the two were reunited in New Jersey. Clarkson’s goal production skyrocketed.

Clarkson’s 30-goal campaign during Deboer’s first season behind the Devils’ bench came after just an 18-point season the year prior. Clarkson played 13 minutes a night in 2010-11 for MacLean and Lamiorello, including 1:40 of powerplay time. Under DeBoer, his minutes climbed to 3:03/game on the powerplay and 16:20 in overall TOI/G. He was the net-front presence on DeBoer’s first powerplay unit and potted eight of his 30 goals on the PP. Aware of some untapped ability from their time together in Kitchener, Deboer transformed Clarkson from a third or fourth line energy winger to a first-unit powerplay option who can ride shotgun as a physical and dirty-goal-scoring presence on a scoring line. In the lockout-shortened season, Clarkson scored 15 in 48 and played 17:32 per game and 3:33 per game on the powerplay.

DeBoer, just recently, was asked on Hockey Central about what he thinks went wrong with Clarkson in Toronto this season:

I think this has just snowballed on him. I think the way the season started with the suspension, him jumping in mid season, the pressure of him not scoring and trying to live up to that contract… When you get to know David Clarkson, you realize there’s nobody who cares more than David Clarkson, sometimes to his own detriment. I think that’s what you’re seeing. I have no doubt he’s going to come out the other end of it, hopefully sooner than later. I watched him the other night against the Rangers and he looks a little bit lost out there right now, but there’s a lot of game there and I think the people of Toronto will see that sooner than later.”

- Peter DeBoer on David Clarkson

You shouldn’t bring in a coach for the sole reason of trying to salvage a disastrous contract, but it’s certainly a checkmark in the plus column. Dave Nonis signed Clarkson to buyout-proof deal and the only way to move forward is to attempt to rehabilitate Clarkson’s game under a new coach, in a new system, with more structure and offensive-zone cycling. That won’t happen overnight with the introduction of a new coach and without some alterations to the personnel. It doesn’t guarantee he can find the elusive fit for Clarkson here in Toronto, either, but DeBoer’s track record suggests he gets Clarkson as a player more than any other coach in the NHL.

Nazem Kadri

Nazem Kadri played under DeBoer in Kitchener for two seasons, winning the OHL championship in 2007-08. DeBoer remains effusively complimentary of Naz, the person and the player.

“Seeing the highlights of Nazem scoring his hat trick against the Islanders made me smile,” the New Jersey Devils coach said in a phone interview this weekend. “I’ve seen that goal before,” DeBoer said with a chuckle. “I know he’s capable of that. I’m not surprised how Naz is doing right now. He’s a very special talented kid.”

But it is the intangibles that add to the Kadri mystique, especially the fierce competitiveness that leaves him refusing to back down from players who are much bigger than he is, no matter what the consequences.  “He’s always played like that, even when I coached him in junior,” DeBoer said. “He’s always played with an edge. He plays with the same edge as Doug Gilmour did.”

To mention the name of a youngster like Kadri in the same sentence as that of Gilmour certainly raises expectations in a hockey-crazed market such as Toronto. “I’m aware of that,” said DeBoer, a native of the southern Ontario town of Dunnville.  “But that’s how much I believe in this kid.  He really does play with an edge like Doug Gilmour. He’s not scared of anyone out there.”

If DeBoer had not already raised the bar for Kadri with his Gilmour comment, he then offered up more high praise.  “This is a kid you win championships with,” DeBoer proclaimed.  “He helped us win one (OHL) in Kitchener in 2007-08.”

In the process, he was the recipient of some tough love from the then-Kitchener bench boss, tactics that, in the end, made Kadri a better player.

Asked the other day who the toughest coach he had ever played for, Kadri immediately said DeBoer.

“His nickname is Pistol Pete for a reason,” Kadri said. “He was hard on us.”

On Monday, Pistol Pete will bring his Devils to the Air Canada Centre to face off against the Leafs. In preparing for that game, DeBoer admits his team will pay special attention to Kadri — specifically, how to stop him.

“The way he’s played, he has earned (that kind of respect)” DeBoer said. “I’m so happy for him. Great kid and a great family. “In Kitchener, it’s very hard to get Ranger tickets. I think players were allotted two per game. “I remember after Naz joined us, his dad Sam, a great guy, came in and asked if there was any way to get seven or eight per game. The whole family wanted to come to see him play.”

- Toronto Sun

Kadri’s past and present coaches seem to navigate a balancing-act in their relationship with Naz, be it DeBoer or his pro coaches in Dallas Eakins, Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle. Kadri is a player who coaches push hard. He seems to need it and, to his credit, he seems to be able to take it. A “player’s coach” in Eakins recognized a need to push his buttons by calling him out publicly when he came to camp out of shape a few training camps ago with the Marlies. Ron Wilson didn’t seem to have the time of day for Naz, didn’t think he could play center — at least at that stage of his career – and mostly ripped him while he was here.  One of the good things Carlyle has done while in Toronto — often forgotten — was instantly recognize that Naz could employ his creative qualities more effectively from the middle of the ice. He had a huge season under Carlyle in the lockout-shortened year, and while his first full 80-game season wasn’t without its ups and downs, a 20-goal campaign in the typically-rocky sophomore year is pretty good all things considered. 20 goals and 50 points despite a mishmash of linemates including a badly-struggling Clarkson, who killed play after play on that line, from a 23-year-old centerman in the second line center’s role? We’ll take it, no questions asked. This is a good young talent who was bound to emerge no matter who he played for, but Carlyle has generally showed an awareness of when Naz needed the stick and when he needed the carrot, so to speak.

DeBoer would come into the Leaf dressing room knowing what makes Naz tick while believing deeply in Kadri’s abilities.

Moreover, while it’s impossible to say for certain from where we’re standing, a coach with ‘Pistol Pete’s’ reputation is something this group may well need. The Leafs appeared awfully quick to fold up the tent this season. Every fan complains of “nights off” (right up there with “no heart”) when their team is struggling, but this team delivered more than their fair share of mailed-in efforts this year.  Carlyle’s lack of answers in last month  suggest he has no idea how to fix the obvious issues or even properly motivate his group. There is no more obvious of an example than the very recent one in Florida, when he pleaded with his group about not getting outshot 2:1 by the bleeping Panthers with debuting starter Drew MacIntyre in net. The effort in a do-or-die game against an undermanned Jets team was pathetic to be generous. Carlyle has tried screaming a lot, as we bore witness to on 24/7 during their November-December struggles. He also frequently tried the softer approach, with plenty of off days and some morale-boosting team activities away from the rink. DeBoer, at a minimum, is  a new voice, and his personality –  pretty calm, cerebral (a U of Windsor-trained lawyer) but intensely passionate just below the surface; he’s got a deep, slow-burn competitiveness to him and a calm intensity that shines through in his interviews — has been a hit with his players and seems to command their respect.

Wrapping Up

DeBoer has less than impressive coaching record in terms of overall wins and losses. He could be a well-kept secret whose abilities as a coach don’t equate to his record. DeBoer has a history of instant turnarounds with the teams he takes over, guiding his Panthers team to a finish just outside the playoffs — tied for 8th in 2008-09 and lost the tiebreaker — and leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first go around as Devils head coach. There’s a convincing argument to be made that the Devils’ problems the past two seasons were at the management level, not behind the bench. You could also argue DeBoer’s success has not lasted more than a season with either team he’s coached in the NHL. The Devils have missed the playoffs twice since making the Finals in 2012, and while we could argue a lack of roster talent and inability to spend money played the biggest role, the Panthers were the worst team in the East when DeBoer was fired before winning the crappy Southeast Division the season after he left.

The Devils remain a  boring hockey team — part Devils tradition,  part losing their best offensive players to free agency or Europe — and while it’s possible to neuter a team’s offensive instincts, that isn’t so much of a risk for a team with the Leafs’ offensive leaders, one wouldn’t think. Not a whole lot of coaching takes place past the other team’s blueline. Sheltering the top line a little more and letting it do its thing, while building up a couple of other lines that can take on the toughs, cycle and play responsibly, seems to be the way forward for this team. DeBoer has gotten good defensive results with a vanilla blueline in New Jersey. While the Leafs are a considerably larger project than the already-defensively-competent Devils team he inherited, his track record suggests he knows what’s required and his ‘11-12 Devils team scored enough when the scoring talent was present.

As bad as things seem for the Leafs now, they’re not the only team to take a step back in their team building process after making the playoffs in an apparent leap forward. The next step is to retool, try to fill the holes, and go at it again with a new voice behind the bench. If we consider Ron Wilson the sacrificial lamb during the Burke rebuild years, Randy Carlyle is the Leafs’ first kick at the can in terms of coaches with playoff expectations. It didn’t work out, but we learned more about this team in the process.

Could DeBoer succeed where Carlyle failed?