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DeBoer must work well with Devils stars to succeed

by Dave Lozo /
NEWARK, N.J. -- It's a rare thing for a coach to receive the opportunity to work with a talented superstar, never mind three of them. That's exactly what Peter DeBoer is getting as the new coach of the New Jersey Devils.

The 43-year-old DeBoer boasts three years of NHL coaching experience, all with the Florida Panthers from 2008-11. As good as the Panthers' Stephen Weiss and Tomas Vokoun are at their positions, they're not in the same class as the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur.

DeBoer was announced as the Devils' new coach Tuesday afternoon, about six hours after accepting the job in the morning. He hasn't had a chance to have discussions with Kovalchuk and Brodeur, but his relationship with the future Hall-of-Fame players who are coming off uneven seasons will go a long way toward determining the success the Devils will have after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was in the same situation last summer, searching for a coach after Jacques Lemaire retired following the 2009-10 season. Lamoriello hired John MacLean, a rookie without a lick of experience behind an NHL bench.

The results were disastrous.

New Jersey opened the season 9-22-2 and couldn't recover despite an incredible second-half surge after Lemaire was re-hired in late December. MacLean decided to make Kovalchuk a healthy scratch in late-October in an effort to get the superstar on track and the team headed in the right direction.

The ploy didn't work. The Devils lost that game to the Buffalo Sabres, 6-1, and when MacLean was fired, Kovalchuk had 8 goals and 10 assists in 30 games. Under the more experienced Lemaire, who employed a defense system similar to what DeBoer will likely use in New Jersey, Kovalchuk had 23 goals and 19 assists in 51 games.

With a conservative mindset, NHL experience and time coaching Los Angeles Kings star Mike Richards when they were with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, DeBoer had everything the Devils wanted in their seventh coach in seven seasons.

"I think it all helps," Lamoriello said of DeBoer. "With Ilya, he's a team player. He loves the game. He's receptive to coaching and I don't feel it was that you needed (a coach) specifically for that type of player."

Kovalchuk showed a willingness to accept Lemaire's system last season and flourished after Parise, a left wing, was lost for the season. It allowed Kovalchuk to move back to his natural position of left wing after playing a lot on the right side, but with Parise healthy again, the problem of getting the most out of the pair could return.

Whatever DeBoer decides to do with his lineup, he doesn't have any worries about dealing with Kovalchuk.

"I've never met him, but I've heard great things about his character," DeBoer said of Kovalchuk. "I've heard he's a leader, a hard worker and he's a good person. With Ilya, his heart is in the right place, he plays hard and practices hard. I get along with the players like that without a problem."

The challenge of handling Brodeur is a far different one. Just like every member of the Devils during the first half of last season, Brodeur struggled badly. But once Lemaire took over, the 39-year-old Brodeur looked more like the player who possesses nearly every goaltending record the NHL has to offer.

How DeBoer controls the aging superstar's workload will be interesting. The last time Brodeur played fewer than 70 games in a season and it wasn't due to injury was 1996-97. No one can say for sure that all those games are the reason for Brodeur's sub-par playoff numbers since 2006, but it's a fact that the last time a goaltender won a Stanley Cup while playing at least 70 regular-season games was 2003 -- when Brodeur did it.

It was a whirlwind Tuesday for DeBoer, so the last thing he had the time to do was come up with a plan for resting Brodeur and using capable backup goaltender Johan Hedberg.

"He's arguably the best goaltender of all-time," DeBoer said. "I'll get a chance to sit down with Marty over the summer very soon. He's one of the guys at the top of my list to call. We'll come up with a plan on what to do. But it's a great luxury to have a guy like that in the nets and a capable backup in Hedberg who has shown that he can start as many games as you need him to."

That's something every Devils coach has said. It will be interesting to see if DeBoer will be the first coach since Lemaire to use Brodeur for less than 70 games in a season.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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