- After narrowly missing a Stanley Cup title last season, Peter DeBoer has some new strategies to get the San Jose Sharks back to the final.
The head coach called last weekend, during one of few preciously quiet moments for the San Jose Sharks this month. Sixteen games in 31 days overall, including 10 against teams currently in playoff position. Five back-to-backs, four of them road-road, bisected by a six-game stand at SAP Center. Thankfully the travel won’t take the defending Western Conference champions to the East Coast, three time zones away. Still, through the telephone comes the sound of knuckles rapping wood.
“Just crazy,” Pete DeBoer says. “It’s just a hectic month. We’re fairly healthy right now. But you don’t want to burn guys out in March. At the same time, we’ve got to get points here and make sure we’ve got a good spot.”
Through Monday, the Sharks (39–19–7, 85 points) sat comfortably ensconced atop the Pacific Division, ahead of Edmonton by seven points. Their front man on the back end, Brent Burns, leads the NHL in total shots (257) and goals among blue liners (27), trending towards the first 300-30 season by a defenseman since ‘1992-93. But March 31 isn’t the finish line, either.
“There’s no hiding from that,” DeBoer says. “We all know what we’re hoping and expecting to be playing for. That’s the goal.”
Reinforcements are coming, too. Trade deadline pickup Jannik Hansen’s P-1 visa was reportedly approved this week, and the former Vancouver winger is expected to debut later this week against Washington. According to DeBoer, San Jose brass had consulted friend and fellow Danish forward Mikkel Boedker about Hansen before flipping prospect Nikolay Goldobin and a conditional fourth-rounder. The report was glowing. “He fits for us,” DeBoer says. “It’s not as sexy as some of [the other moves] out there, but we like what we think he’ll bring in the playoffs. Versatility, speed, can play up and down, can kill penalties, has the ability to score too. Just a little bit of everything. It’s exactly what we need.”
As part of an ongoing Q&A series with NHL coaches—past installments: Glen Gulutzan, Barry Trotz, Bill Peters, Todd McLellan and Jon Cooper—SI.com spoke with DeBoer about managing an aging squad, working the steel yards, the oft-publicized beard battle between two of his best players, and (literally, not metaphorically) Netflix-and-chilling with his coaching staff.
Sports Illustrated: Last year, your players were pretty complimentary of you for emphasizing rest, scheduling more off-days and such. Then in the Cup Final, I think you talked about how the miles may have caught up to your team a bit. Are you doing anything particular in this month, as you get closer to the playoffs, when it comes to managing that?
Pete DeBoer: We definitely have a plan with (Martin) Jones in net, to get (Aaron) Dell in there some more than we have. With (James) Reimer coming in last year and taking a good handful of starts allowed him to be fresh for the playoffs and perform the way he did. So we’re going to try to do that again, with Dell this time.
With the big guys, that’s a tough one. You need them in every night in order to win and compete, so it’s more managing their ice time, trying to play four lines as much as possible, trying to not use them on both special teams. If we’re using Jumbo [Joe Thornton] and Pav [Joe Pavelski] on the power play, we don’t want to use them on the penalty kill. Try to limit their minutes a little bit so they stay fresh.
SI: Are you doing anything off-ice, rest-wise?
PD: We changed some things this year that carried over from the playoffs, which we didn’t do last year during the regular season. We started staying over in some cities if we were going to change time zones, as opposed to traveling the night of the game. Coming home, coming back after the road last year, our record was abysmal. I want to say it was 1–6 or 1–7 after a long trip, when you’re coming from two or three time zones away.
We’ve started staying over in that road city and then traveling the next day. It seems to have helped. I think we won two or three coming back in that situation. There was one in Detroit, one in Chicago, when we came back the next day and found a way to win. I think that’s probably helped and is something we’ll continue to do.
SI: Do you think you’d be as conscious about this stuff if this were a younger team that didn’t have as many collective miles on it?
PD: Probably not. I think having an older team has definitely heightened my awareness to it. My experience in New Jersey with an older team, flying back and forth for the Stanley Cup Final with L.A., I think that turned a little bit of a light bulb on about the travel and the wear and tear of guys, both through the playoff run and also with cross-country travel. It was a combination of things.
SI: Along those lines, what are the challenges you face in the season coming off a Cup Final run?
PD: Obviously we all know the history of teams that have gone to the Final and have Stanley Cup hangover. I think we wanted to make sure that we didn’t fall into that trap. We wanted to buck that trend and be a team that didn’t use that as an excuse, and came back and built on what we did last year. I give our guys credit. It hasn’t been easy. The short summer was compounded by the World Cup and we had seven players. A lot of things there that I think our group could’ve used as an excuse to take a step back this year. That resiliency has been the thing I’m most excited about.
PD: Just the way we’ve handled this season. We’ve stuck with it. We’ve dealt with our fair share of injuries like everybody else. But there’s been a real sense to fix the things we thought we didn’t do well last year. We had a really poor home record. This year our home record has been excellent. There’s a conscious effort. We don’t want to just do what we did last year. We want to be better at some things.
SI: That’s way more hockey talk than I usually do in these, so let’s get into some other stuff. Did I read correctly that your first job was working in a steel yard?
PD: Yeah, my father was a foreman at a steel factory in Ontario and at the time, I don't think he’d ever heard of child labor laws. I think I went to work the summer I was 15. I was driving cranes, pulling rebar, I was doing everything. It was a great summer job. My mother was an X-ray technician at a hospital in Hamilton. The following summer, I worked in the hospital refilling whatever each ward needed, whether it was needles and bandages.
It was two polar opposite jobs, but both really interesting. The steel-working job really gave you insight into what an honest day’s work was about. Working in the hospital was a totally different experience. You’re going into cancer wards and children’s pediatric units. You’re seeing all kinds of sickness and death and sad cases. It was two totally different jobs and two jobs that I think really shaped me.
SI: Between those two jobs and then your background in law, it sounds like you grew up with a firm grasp of the world outside hockey.
PD: The law experience came at a good time for me. I’d been a hockey player through junior and some pro. You get in that hockey world bubble. You’re not exposed to much else. You eat, breathe, live it for 24 hours a day. When I retired and went back to law school, your eyes get opened to a whole different world. You realize how small a piece of it hockey is. That was a great experience. That led to a couple short-term jobs in some legal departments, one in a criminal firm, then at CompuWare with their in-house legal firm.
SI: What’s your fascination with laser pointers? That’s become a thing players always mention about you.
PD: I don't know what it is. The guys get a kick out of it. It’s something they’ve picked up on. It’s amazing how perceptive hockey players are. We have a coach on our staff that always butchers the names of the other players on the other teams. They immediately, every time he stumbles even a little bit, they jump on it. For me, it’s the laser pointer. That’s what I’m known for. I guess there are worse things to be known for.
SI: Is there a good technique? A proper pointer you have to use?
PD: As the players pointed out this is something that they’ve noticed, I guess I have spent a little more time on my technique. I coached so many years old-school with VCR tapes and small TV screens, using your finger or a ruler to point out what was going on. The laser was such a great invention in my mind. I haven’t been able to put it down.
SI: No question that you have the most unique living situation of any NHL coach. First, you have roommates. Second, those roommates are on your staff [assistant coach Steve Spott and goalie coach Johan Hedberg]. And you all like to watch TV shows together, right? What shows are on these days?
PD: Good question. Right now we’re into Prison Break. I don't know if you’ve seen that on Netflix. I think we’re in season five. That’s been our latest go-to.
SI: What did you tick off before?
PD: We did all of Mad Men, all seven seasons last year. That was a constant for us.
SI: How different is living with those two than living with [Winnipeg Jets coach] Paul Maurice [when the two were coaching the OHL’s Detroit Junior Red Wings]?
PD: You know what, very similar. Obviously we’re all at different ages. At the time I was living with Paul, we were in our 20s. The nights were a little bit later and the empty beer cans were probably a little bit more than they were here. But it’s still guys sitting around, enjoying each other’s company, watching or talking hockey. It’s been good. Our whole coaching staff is in the same situation where we have families back east. It’s been a nice distraction to come home and not sit in an empty house.
SI: Last question. I don’t know if the Beard Hall of Fame exists, but let’s say it does. You’re on the selection committee, and you’re the tiebreaking vote for that year’s class between Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. Who’s getting inducted?
PD: Oh, I’ve got to go with Jumbo. The gray mixed in there is something that Burnsie isn’t at yet. I think it’s like the old king of the lions, with a little bit of gray on the mane. I think you’ve always got to go with the elder statesman.
SI: Do you think he touches up the sides of the landing strip with Just For Men? It doesn’t seem like the gray has spread yet.
PD: If you know Jumbo, I don't think he touches up anything. I think he is what he is.
SI: I’ve never seen someone more comfortable at being, let’s say, unclothed around other people.
PD: Neither have I. Little off-putting. [Laughs] But we deal with it.