Devils find stability in DeBoer
NEWARK, N.J. -- Of the many difficult decisions New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello will have to make this offseason, replacing the man behind the bench is not one of them for a change.
When Peter DeBoer was hired by the Devils last summer, it marked the team's seventh head coach in seven seasons -- certainly no formula for maintaining some order of continuity and consistency.
But DeBoer made changes for the better. He stressed the importance of puck battles and playing as a five-man unit, how to frustrate the opposition with a relentless forecheck, and outnumbering your opponent to loose pucks all over the ice.
The players bought in and came within two victories of claiming the organization's first Stanley Cup in nine years.
"I think he was a great coach in the beginning, and became a better coach as the season went on," Lamoriello told the media during his team's breakup day at Prudential Center on Wednesday.
"Not only were his skills of communicating with the players and getting his point across great, but the way he used his assistants and respected his assistants. As I've said all along, he has no ego, is intelligent and comfortable in his own skin. He's not afraid to listen to suggestions and make changes for the better, and when you have that combination it breeds success."
Looking back, DeBoer felt as though his team's five-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break was a sign of future success.
"I think coming out of the All-Star break, we went on a roll," DeBoer said. "We lost three home games to Boston, Philly and Buffalo during a homestand heading into the break and didn't look good. You begin wondering if you're a playoff team. But we came out and ran off nice streak and felt then we had a chance."
So did every player in the locker room.
"He got the best out of us, and that's a hard thing to do," captain Zach Parise said. "All the coaches really did a good job of coaching the team we had. They put in a system that worked for us, and got us to play to the best of our ability. From day one, they wanted to change some things and players were excited about it right away. Pete talked to different players individually with what he was trying to accomplish and what he wanted to do, and you just respect a person that does that."
The Devils went 9-1-1 immediately following the All-Star Game in Ottawa on Jan. 29. The club carried much emotion and spirited play right up to the final week of the regular season, when it strung together six straight victories following a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The season was a blur, from moving in in August-September, to getting the news that Travis [Zajac] was done for the year, to starting .500 two months into the season … it was really spinning our wheels," DeBoer said. "I think I'll have a greater appreciation for how far we came the further I'm removed from it [this summer]."
The Devils had a 102-point regular season and three 30-goal scorers. They knocked off the Panthers, DeBoer's former team, and then the rival Flyers and Rangers in winning the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2003. On top of all that, DeBoer helped in the emergence of three rookies in Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson and Stephen Gionta.
"[DeBoer] was a big reason for our success, coming in right from day one," Henrique told NHL.com. "He demanded work, but at the same time, we had fun coming to the rink. Guys wanted to play for him. All the coaches were great and they did a tremendous amount of work for us to get to this point."
DeBoer, who turned 44 on Wednesday, was aided on the bench by assistants Larry Robinson, Adam Oates, Dave Barr and Chris Terreri. He said the monumental task of getting a team prepared each and every regular-season and playoff game would not have been possible without those coaches.
He also said neither he, nor anyone else on the team holds a grudge against wing Steve Bernier for taking the five-minute boarding major that led to three Los Angeles goals in the first period during the decisive Game 6 in Staples Center.
"Steve was trying to do what we asked him to do, and what he was very effective at doing the entire playoffs," DeBoer said. "Get in on the forecheck and finish a hit. I have no negative feelings toward that play."
Bernier said he is extremely grateful to his coaching staff and teammates for giving him their support.
"Pete said exactly what he needed to say and what I needed to hear," Bernier said. "It's very important coming from a coach. He knows I'm not a dirty player, and I would never want to hurt the team. I'll do anything to help this team win and taking that five-minute boarding penalty wasn't in the plan."
DeBoer said he's already thinking about how he will get his team back to the Cup Final in 2013.
"I think you look ahead to next season, for sure," he said. "Whenever you lose, your first thoughts go to how can we make sure we can get back here and win next time. I think we had a lot of young players get key playoff experience and lot of mid-range players gained a ton of playoff games. That experience is invaluable and will help us moving forward."
Of course, DeBoer is hopeful that future involves his captain, Parise, who officially hits the free-agent market on July 1.
"[DeBoer] got us back to where we expected to be on a regular basis, and I think with all the guys who have been here with the disappointments, it gave us a taste of how much better it is to get a little further in the postseason," Parise said.
Would Parise stay in New Jersey knowing that the head coach is DeBoer?
"It definitely helps because of how much we liked Pete and believed in Pete," he said. "He did an unbelievable job and he's a great coach. For everybody who is going to be here next year, knowing what he wants to do and how good of a coach his is, you believe in him."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale