SAN JOSE –- Coincidentally enough, new Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was working with Todd McLellan for Team Canada at the World Championships in Prague when general manager Doug Wilson first called him about the position that had been recently vacated in San Jose.
Heck, for all we know, McLellan was in earshot of DeBoer’s iPhone ringtone when Wilson’s 408 area code showed up on the caller ID.
But rather than pepper McLellan with questions about the state of the Sharks franchise – and there is certainly no shortage of those – DeBoer decided he was better off forming his own opinion while pondering the open job in San Jose.
“Working with Todd was a privilege. Good man, great coach, and I got to pick his brain a little bit,” DeBoer said at his introductory press conference on Thursday at SAP Center. “But I purposely didn’t ask a lot of questions. I really feel as a coach I want to come in here with a clear mind and an open slate for all the players and all the staff, and really make my own decisions on what’s here.”
So, what is here? As currently constructed, the Sharks have some aging veterans, some of whom took steps backwards last season, some others in the primes of their careers, and a hefty contingent of young players that simply didn’t have the kind of impact that was expected in 2014-15 in what was labeled by Wilson as a year in transition.
That first year of the transition didn’t go as planned, as the only two teams in the Western Conference that had fewer points than the Sharks were the lowly Oilers and Coyotes.
DeBoer sounded like a guy that views the current roster as one that can rebound quickly, however. He compared it to his first year in New Jersey, when he took a team that hadn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs in four seasons, and missed altogether the season before, to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Kings in six games in 2012.
“There’s a lot of similarities. What I found with the group in New Jersey that I see here is a group of veteran guys and young players that have hit a little bit of a rut,” DeBoer said. “I think their true character is going to be tested. I see enough character in that room that I see a big bounceback year.”
While DeBoer found success in his inaugural year in New Jersey, which followed three non-playoff seasons with the Florida Panthers, it didn’t continue. The Devils saw some big time players like Ilya Kovalchyk and Zach Parise depart, while management made a number of questionable roster decisions to fill those holes, and they never made it back to the postseason.
The Devils, like the Sharks are doing now, have been attempting to integrate some younger players onto their roster. Under DeBoer, the results were mixed. Center Adam Henrique is a success story, but others like Jacob Josefson (first round, 2009), Adam Larsson (first round, 2011), and Stefan Matteau (first round, 2012) haven’t had much of an impact.
In order for DeBoer to have long-term success with the Sharks, young players like Tomas Hertl, Matt Nieto, Chris Tierney and Mirco Mueller are going to have to develop into consistent, productive players, and it will have to happen sooner than later as the Joe Thorntons, Patrick Marleaus and Joe Pavelskis all advance in age.
“It's the best league in the world, and it's awfully tough for young players to step into this league and make immediate impacts,” DeBoer said. “At the same time, it's critical that they do because you see the teams that are playing this time of year, they all are getting contributions from those guys.
“I had some young players in New Jersey that had great success early. … Some other young players, sometimes it doesn't come as quickly or sometimes they need some different approaches, whether it's tough love or a step back. It's situational and individual to every player. I'm looking forward to the youth here. I like what I see in the roster.”
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According to Wilson, “10 or 11” candidates in total were approached for the Sharks’ job. After an informal discussion with DeBoer, Wilson eventually flew to Toronto and met with the 46-year-old Danville, Ontario native some more, after he returned from Prague. News broke of the hiring on Wednesday.
DeBoer was one of three finalists for the Sharks in 2008 after a successful junior hockey career, and Wilson indicated that he was either near the top of the list from early on this time around.
“When I sat down to interview him, he was very cognizant of where the game is at today and where it’s going,” Wilson said. “His intelligence is way off the charts. But his ability to be open-minded and adapt and adjust was really impressive to us."
DeBoer eventually went to Florida in 2008, and after three tumultuous seasons under three different general managers, went on to coach the Devils.
He’s gained knowledge and experience along the way. After getting the axe in New Jersey in December, he’s anxious to begin anew, saying that he wanted to get “right back on the horse and prove I wasn't part of the problem.”
Wilson said: “In the interview he was very impressive seven years ago. He’s at a whole different level now. I’m glad we went through the process. I’m very pleased with where we ended up.”
It’s a new start for DeBoer, of course, but it’s also a fresh beginning for the players on the roster. DeBoer mentioned he’s only really familiar with Brent Burns, coaching him for two years in the World Championships, including this past May.
Remember that clean-slate, no equity approach that Wilson spoke about late last summer? That’s apparently what he's getting with DeBoer at the helm.
“Todd's an excellent coach. I don't think there's anybody better that I've worked with personally,” DeBoer said. “Big shoes to fill, but we're also different coaches. We have some philosophies are the same, but I think where we put our emphasis is probably a little bit different.
“That's going to play out. The players will know the differences and it's important that there's differences there.”