When the Florida Panthers finished 28th in the National Hockey League for the second consecutive year in 2011, no one was surprised when major changes went into motion the very next day. Coach Peter DeBoer's head was the first to roll as GM Dale Tallon relieved he and assistant Jim Hulton of their duties to search for a better fit for his soon-to-be-assembled ragtag roster.
For a myriad of reasons, many far outside of his own control, DeBoer hadn't approached the lofty expectations set by former general manager Jacques Martin after the 2008 hiring based on a very strong and lengthy resume with Kitchener of the OHL. As is typically the case with a historic majority of coaches who outlive former bosses, he was fired.
Last Friday, DeBoer found himself as coach of the NHL's most recent Eastern Conference Champions. Two days from now he'll tend to his bench in the first game of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. How did he accomplish so much in one season after being shown the glass door in Sunrise? Most will point to the roster depth he inherited with the New Jersey Devils, but that only accounts for half of the story. His club will face the Los Angeles Kings, a team bursting with talent themselves, but - in mid-season - needed to score the right coach to turn their own mediocre year around. DeBoer's time in Sunrise was undoubtedly a learning experience, but the Panthers' problems went deeper than just the man who held the clipboard.Coaches are natural scapegoats. While GMs are applauded for successful trades or signings and players rack up pretty goals and individual accomplishments, coaches don't have many opportunities to earn gold stars. When things aren't going well, the coach is usually the first to shoulder the blame. So was the case for DeBoer in Florida. Bad management and lacking rosters had become a South Florida staple, stumbling players and bold(in a bad way) managers left the light at the end of the tunnel distant. These two characteristics in Panthers hockey were constants, and somehow coaches were expected to brake the runaway truck heading downhill faster and faster each year. When DeBoer took over as a rookie, it seemed things were looking up as he coached a peculiar group of players to the verge of the playoffs. As that roster fell apart, DeBoer couldn't replicate his early success and the Panthers slipped back into irrelevance. The roar to can him wasn't as audible as it was with Toronto fans and Wilson earlier this spring, but it was well known DeBoer had lost the fanbase.
As he sang his swan song with Florida, DeBoer's status as hot commodity OHL champion coach had been downgraded to a more realistic designation; a coach who's learned the ropes but would still be a risky acquisition given his previous record. And though that was fair, he never quite had a fair shake in his three years in Florida. DeBoer had a new general manager each year, a skimpy core to begin with that only got weaker, almost no young blood and a team with the black spot on the free agent market; in short he had nothing to work with. Florida didn't even know they were in rebuild mode yet, they were still trying to find the one piece to put them over the top. That piece wasn't Shawn Matthias, Steve Eminger or Tomas Vokoun. DeBoer was expected to win, but that was all that was clear for an organization in disarray.
Tallon released DeBoer for the same reason all coaches are fired; he didn't coach a style the roster was built for. In his defense, Petey's previous rosters weren't built for much other than imminent failure. Tallon had a plan of action for the offseason and felt another coach would be a better fit. Three months later DeBoer was hired by the Devils to replace retiring Jacques Lemaire, and so far the results have been more than spectacular for the New Jersey organization. DeBoer led his team to a 102 point season in the tightest division in the NHL, taught Ilya Kovalchuk defense, coached David Clarkson to a 30 goal season and captured the honor of having leagues best penalty kill. And that was before he took his team to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Granted DeBoer was gifted to a roster light years ahead of the ones he had in Florida, but don't let that guide you to the conclusion the roster makes the coach. DeBoer still makes questionable line swaps and keeps his emotions under lock and key, but these nuances don't mean much when a coach transitions so smoothly into a new environment and perfectly compliments the makeup of his team. DeBoer wasn't stupid, he was calculated. He went through the same learning curve as current Panthers coach Dineen is going through, the only difference is that Dineen was equip with a purpose. Both had their shortcomings, but Dineen's weren't highlighted since his team was winning. DeBoer never had that luxury, and when he was fired fans knew he wasn't quite to blame, it was just a necessary change.
As the Florida-New Jersey series was set to begin, the big story was how DeBoer would be facing his old club just a year after being fired by them. Of course, this was just media buzz searching for something to interest fans in the series the NHL tried their hardest to bury in the schedule. And buzz is it was, there wasn't much mention of this fact outside of the initial matchup in late November when DeBoer searched for that first win against his former club. In reality it was hard to hate a guy like DeBoer; besides a few rumors and player benchings through his tenure he never made much of a splash. The breakup wasn't messy either, he left the team the way he coached them --quietly. Many of the ties to his old team had been cut as well, on opening day only 9 players had played under Deboer, by Game 7 only 6 hit the ice. That kind of turnover would have never happened under a general manager who wasn't committed to win, and DeBoer just happened to be part of the transition. It isn't a rivalry as much as it is a good story.
Now DeBoer along with Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier form the trio of former Panthers taking part in the finals, all bringing their own specialties to the mix in what has been a tremendous season for the Devils. And though I'm continually reminded of my misery in losing Carter and still feeling the bite of being eliminated, I'll still pull for the Devils to lift the Cup. Because Peter DeBoer would have never made it this far had he not toiled in Sunrise.