When Peter DeBoer was introduced as the ninth head coach in Sharks history on May 28 of last year, he was faced with a simple challenge. So simple, in fact, that it was the most complex challenge of his professional career.
How would he get the Sharks back in the playoffs? You know, how would he get the Sharks back to being the Sharks again?
“I think they were a little bit of a group that was fragile after last year,” DeBoer said. “I think just coming in here and instilling some confidence. We’ve just tried to reinstill that confidence and swagger they played with for a long time here.”
For DeBoer, reinstilling confidence in a team that had lost its way after perennially being a standard bearer in the Western Conference was his first, second and third priority. It was his only priority.
DeBoer attacked the situation with compassion and calm.
A kick in the butt was not what this team needed, DeBoer thought, as much as fully – psychologically and emotionally – coming to terms with whatever painful memories this team harbored from its past and moving on from it.
A 98-point season and return to the postseason, at a time many outsiders clamored for a full rebuild, suggests that DeBoer’s methods have been effective. Although DeBoer hasn’t done it alone, having enlisted the aid of an old friend, an old rival and an old backup goalie.
Steve Spott, DeBoer’s top lieutenant from 1997-2008 with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers and Kitchener Rangers, joined the Sharks as his right-hand man.
Bob Boughner, a once crusty NHL defenseman whose introduction to coaching playoff hockey came when his Plymouth Whalers were swept by DeBoer and Spott’s Rangers eight years ago, became the “left-hand man.”
Johan Hedberg, the affable Swedish goalie who backed up the legendary Martin Brodeur on DeBoer’s Devils team that lost to these very-same Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, arrived as the new goalie coach.
“When I hired the coaches around here, I wanted guys that I knew and I wanted guys that complemented my personality,” DeBoer said. I couldn’t have drawn up a better staff than the guys I have here. They have the ability to communicate. They have a nice blend of guys that had NHL careers, like (Bob) Boughner and (Johan) Hedberg. And communicators like Steve Spott that can loosen up a room. I think it’s a real nice mix and the guys have embraced it.”
The new coaching staff’s strokes of genius have included:
*Starting in December, DeBoer decided to give 36-year-old Joe Thornton more days off from practice. Since the middle of December, Thornton has exploded for 15 goals and 51 assists in 53 games (1.25 points/game) after starting the season with only 16 points in 29 games (0.55 point/game).
*Last season, in Brent Burns’ first year back on defense, the results were a bit of a mixed bag. His 60 points were second only to Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson among NHL defensemen, but his giveaways were frequent, his plus/minus (-9) one of the worst on the team and his ability to read the play less than refined. With Boughner bringing an old school approach, Burns has become a bona fide Norris Trophy contender, anticipates the play better and had the second-highest goal total (27) and fifth-highest point total (75) by any defenseman in a season since the 2005 NHL lockout.
*Before this season, Martin Jones had never played in more than 19 games in an NHL season. Arriving in a trade from the Boston Bruins via the Los Angeles Kings, Jones stepped in to become a No. 1 goalie for the first time. Working with Hedberg, his new goalie coach, Jones posted the lowest goals-against average (2.27) by a No. 1 Sharks goalie since 2007-08 while playing in 65 games (fifth most in the league).
DeBoer’s staff’s calm demeanor has impacted the team in others areas as well.
Where a year ago the Sharks feathers may have been ruffled by the prospect of a return match with the Kings, this group has been relaxed. Rather than get bent out of shape by outsiders’ snickers and doubts, or the memory of past failures, the Sharks are taking the approach that this series is more business as usual than a unique opportunity to exact revenge against the opponent that handed them a crushing defeat. And in the process, alter this group’s legacy.
Maintaining the even keel they’ve carried all year, up against the rival that knocked them off-kilter to begin with, the Sharks are saying is a simple challenge.
So simple, in fact, that it’s the most complex challenge this team has ever faced.