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DeBoer's task: Get Devils back into playoffs

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils
The Devils appointed DeBoer as their new head coach on July 19. GETTY IMAGES

The New Jersey Devils couldn't catch a break in the first half of the 2010-11 season, even after the summertime re-signing of Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk to a mammoth 15-year, $100 million contract that took nearly the entire summer to complete.

Instead, they suffered subpar performances under new coach John MacLean, lost star forward Zach Parise to injury 12 games into the season, saw Kovalchuk struggle in the early going, and found themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference at 9-22-2 by the time Christmas rolled around.

It was around that time General Manager Lou Lamoriello opted to fire MacLean and rehire Jacques Lemaire in a last-ditch effort to qualify for the playoffs.

While Lemaire led the Devils to a 29-17-3 mark after taking over on Dec. 23, it wasn't enough to overcome the hole the team had dug itself. The Devils ultimately missed out on qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.

With Lemaire returning to enjoy the retired life at his cottage outside Montreal, Lamoriello filled the coaching vacancy on July 19 by hiring former Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer.

"Remember, when he came out of junior he was the most sought after junior coach at the time," Lamoriello said of DeBoer. "He turned down a lot of jobs and chose Florida. People don't understand what the jump (from junior to the NHL) is and you have to go through ups and downs. What he went through there just made him a better coach and I felt that way in the conversations we had because of the questions that were asked and the answers I was given and also what he offered. He was open, down to earth and honest."

The biggest loss for the Devils comes behind the bench with the departure of Lemaire, who called it quits for the second time in 11 months.

Lemaire helped lead the Devils to a stirring turnaround after coming out of retirement, but they fell 12 points short of the eighth and final playoff spot in Eastern Conference -- the team had been 27 points behind the eighth seed on Jan. 9 and got as close as six. It will be interesting to see how Lemaire's departure affects Kovalchuk, who erupted for 23 goals and 42 points in 49 games with Lemaire calling the shots. He totaled just eight goals and 18 points in 32 games under MacLean.

The Devils enter training camp with almost the same team intact as they had at the end of last season, minus veteran forward Brian Rolston, veteran defenseman Colin White, tough guy Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and defenseman Anssi Salmela. Trent Hunter, the player acquired by the Devils in the Rolston trade with the Islanders, was bought out and placed on waivers with two years and $4 million total left on his contract.

Rolston waived his no-trade clause and was promptly dealt to the Isles in a salary cap move that saved the organization more than $3 million for this season. Lamoriello re-signed Parise, a restricted free agent, to a one-year, $6 million deal one day later.

White, who had played all of his 743 regular-season games and 111 playoffs games in a Devils uniform, was bought out in the final year of his contract on Aug. 2 and landed with the San Jose Sharks a day later. He was selected by New Jersey in the second round of the 1996 Entry Draft and made his debut in 1999-2000, playing a part in Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003.

Leblond was dealt to Calgary for a 2012 fifth-round draft pick, while Salmela signed a two-year contract with Avangard Omsk of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Additionally, minor-league goalie Mike McKenna and defenseman Tyler Eckford were lost via free agency and minor-league forward David McIntyre was traded to the Minnesota Wild.

Fourth overall pick Adam Larsson will be aiming for a roster spot when training camp opens in September. GETTY IMAGES
The most important newcomer is DeBoer, who spent three seasons as coach in Florida before being fired at the conclusion of the 2010-11 campaign, was named the team's 21st coach on July 19.

The fact his teams in Florida never qualified for the postseason still upsets DeBoer to this day. Still, many would say he did the best with what he had; he finished 103-107-36 in three seasons in Sunrise.

"You're in this League and in this job to win and play in the playoffs and up until the last three years I'd never missed the playoffs in my coaching career," DeBoer said. "So that's something that ate at you every day and that's also something that was very attractive about this opportunity. This is a team that perennially was in the playoffs and should be and should have a chance to win."

DeBoer's hiring marks the seventh coach in seven seasons in New Jersey, with Lemaire and Lamoriello each holding the position twice.

The biggest player acquisitions were left wing Eric Boulton from the Winnipeg Jets and right wing Cam Janssen of the St. Louis Blues. The 34-year-old Boulton had six goals, 10 points and 87 penalty minutes in 69 games with the Atlanta Thrashers last season, including a hat trick in a game against the Devils.

Janssen was 1-3-4 with 131 penalty minutes in 54 games with the Blues last season. In 95 games with the Devils spanning two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07), he had a goal and 205 penalty minutes.

The Devils will also give 2011 first-round pick Adam Larsson every opportunity to make the team out of training camp -- he's already labeled by many to be among the team's top four entering training camp. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound defenseman, who signed a three-year, entry-level deal on July 15, had a good showing in rookie camp.

"He was the best player available to us (at No. 4) in the draft; he's got the most upside to be a longtime contributor to the organization," Director of Scouting Dave Conte told "Whether it's tomorrow or in three years, that's OK. He was the right guy for us at this time.

"Adam has unique abilities that are evolving. I don't want to call him a neophyte, but they are evolving, and that's where coaching comes in … to maximize those abilities. He's got the size and skill, but until they manifest themselves, answering whether or not he'll play with the team this year is an unanswerable question."

Zajac will miss the start of the season while recovering from Aug. 18 surgery on his left Achilles tendon. GETTY IMAGES
DeBoer said he wouldn't have to change his coaching style to conform to the Devils philosophy, something that probably proved to be the demise of former coach John MacLean in 2010.

DeBoer actually described himself as possessing a "hybrid" coaching style.

"Philosophically, we're on the same page," he said. "We believe in the same things. I think that every coach has his own identity and his own characteristics. We want to pursue the puck. We want to dictate the pace of the play. But the foundation of that is still good, solid defensive hockey and playing the right way and I think that meshes perfectly with what they do here."

That said, DeBoer knows he'll have his work cut out for him if he intends to duplicate the team's 23-3-2 run under Lemaire from Jan. 9 to March 15. Not only is he taking over a team that finished with a League-worst 2.08 goals-per game average, but the Devils had just one 30-goal scorer (Kovalchuk) and one 20-goal scorer (Patrik Elias) last season. Does he give Kovalchuk more opportunities offensively? The Devils can ill-afford to play a run-and-gun style -- that was painfully apparent last season.

"I absolutely feel that potential is something we want to strive for right from Day 1 of next season," DeBoer said.

The Devils' top two lines might consist of Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, David Clarkson and Parise, Elias and Mattias Tedenby. The defense could include Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne, Larsson and Bryce Salvador, who missed all of last season due to a concussion. DeBoer must also manage the playing time of 39-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur, whose .903 save percentage was his worst since 1995.

"He's arguably the best goaltender of all-time," DeBoer said. "It's a great luxury to have a guy like that in the nets and a capable backup in (Johan) Hedberg who has shown that he can start as many games as you need him to."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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