Curious coaching moves by Sharks, Blues; Who's next for Devils, Sabres?
The music hasn’t stopped yet, but the vacant coaching chairs around the NHL are filling up fast.
The latest to grab a seat, according to published reports, is Pete DeBoer. The former Devils coach, canned after 36 games this season, is expected to be named at a Thursday press conference (4 p.m. ET) as the new man behind the bench in San Jose.
DeBoer has skins on the wall: a 2003 Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers and a Stanley Cup finals berth with a decent New Jersey team back in 2012 among them. But he’s a curious choice, especially for a Sharks organization that is looking to foist more responsibility on its younger players.
Despite his background in junior hockey DeBoer was viewed as an impediment to the development of New Jersey’s prospects rather than a nurturer. Take a look at the development of Adam Larsson. The oversized defender, selected fourth in the 2011 NHL draft, couldn't earn the confidence of DeBoer and seemed to lose it in himself as his game stagnated. But as soon as Lou Lamoriello and Scott Stevens stepped behind the bench they slid Larsson alongside Andy Greene. He soon became a staple of the team’s top-four, averaging better than 22 all-purpose minutes per night over the second half.
That’s not a coincidence. And he’s certainly not the only hopeful who seemed to regress under DeBoer. Defenseman Eric Gelinas and center Jacob Josefson also struggled with confidence issues while he was behind the bench (though to be fair though, it should be mentioned that Damon Severson thrived under DeBoer).
There are questions too about his style. DeBoer was an ideal coach for the Devils because he preached defensive responsibility first. In that respect he was a huge success. Only Montreal allowed fewer goals per 60 minutes this season than New Jersey's 1.89 and the Devils have been a solid shot suppression team as well. On the other hand his teams never scored. Not in regulation (1.75 per 60 minutes, 28th in the league). Not in overtime. Not in the shootout. That has something to do with the talent on hand, but it also speaks to his style. If the players are judged primarily on their play away from the puck, what they do with it tends to take a back seat.
That’s not to say that DeBoer can’t (or won’t) adapt his style to make the most of the ample firepower he’ll have available in San Jose. The point is that he’ll have to. He may work out just fine, but DeBoer feels like a square peg here. He’ll have to smooth off his edges before he’ll be a fit with the Sharks.
Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Blues decided to stick with the devil they know and extended coach Ken Hitchcock for one more season.
Hard to see how that deal makes sense, either.
It might have meant something if they’d married him with a three-year deal. But one year? He’s not their coach. He’s a placeholder. And he’ll be there only until the team stumbles or something better comes along.
Look, Hitchcock is a terrific talent. He’s one of the bright minds in the game and certainly one of the most highly regarded. But under his guidance the Blues have become a team that dominates the regular season then spits the bit in the playoffs. That’s an ugly reputation to slog around. Just ask the Sharks.
Sure, St. Louis has run into a couple of legitimate Stanley Cup challengers from Chicago and Los Angeles along the way, and in each case the better team won. But what about this year? The Blues were outskated, outworked and outchanced by the Minnesota Wild, a team that followed up that stirring performance by bowing out meekly in four straight in the very next round.
The conventional wisdom saw a situation that cried out for change ... and yet here the Blues are, offering up a single scoop of more of the same. What message does that send to a fanbase that hasn’t seen a Stanley Cup finals game in nearly half a century? More troubling, what does it say to the Blues players? If they were less than 100% on board with Hitchcock’s program before, as grumblings from the room suggest, why would that change now that his leash has been shortened?
Since the rest of his staff has been retained as well, the only way to justify the decision is to alter the roster. Dramatically. That’s not easy to do in the salary cap era unless a team is willing to exchange a dollar for four quarters, but extending Hitchcock has to mean personnel changes are coming.
And if that happens, it’s a good bet that T.J. Oshie is among those who are sent packing. The speedy winger may be highly regarded around the rest of the league—his Sochi shootout and car rental commercial that have run on a loop during the playoffs are doing wonders for his profile—but he’s seen as an underperforming malingerer around St. Louis after complaining to the press in March about information overload. Defenseman Ian Cole, who complained about the same problem back in December, was shipped to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.
David Backes, whose reaction to the news of the extension was something less than enthusiastic, is another option. He's the big body in the middle that teams crave at this time of the year but his performance, highlighted by just four goals in his past 25 playoff games, suggests he might be more valuable to this team as a trade chip. Patrik Berglund, who will gain no-movement protection this summer, and Steve Ott also could be sacrificed, if only to create roster space for kids like Robby Fabbri, Ivan Barbashev and Ty Rattie to fight for.
Those prospects might not have gotten that opportunity in the past under Hitchcock. To his credit, his has matured. He’s not afraid of giving a kid a chance, and sticking with him, if he earns it. But with his job under daily review, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll he be as nurturing next season.
With those two accounted for, that leaves just two teams without a coach: the Sabres and Devils. After being jilted by Mike Babcock, it’s widely believed that the Sabres would like to grab former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. There’s a good chance though that he could reunite with former Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero in New Jersey. If that’s the way it plays out—and knowing Buffalo's propensity for finishing second, it seems likely—then the Sabres could turn to AHL Binghamton coach Luke Richardson. GM Tim Murray worked with the long-time NHL defender for years in the Senators organization, and his ability to develop young talent would seem to be a good fit for a rebuilding Buffalo franchise.
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