SAN JOSE – Pete DeBoer knew something none of the rest of us did.
On Oct. 28, the Sharks had just lost their fourth game in the last five to Nashville. “We had our chances, they had their chances, good goaltending at both ends. It was a hard-fought game,” DeBoer deadpanned.
On Dec. 5, the Sharks dropped their third straight to Tampa Bay, dipping their record to an average 14-12-0. “Once we get everybody back and get healthy I’ll have a better idea of what we are. I liked our fight. We didn’t quit,” DeBoer hypothesized.
On Jan. 7, San Jose was downed by Detroit, dropping it to 18-18-2 and sixth place in the Pacific Division. “That’s the way things are going right now. We’ve got to be resilient and know that if we play that way, that over the long-term we’ll be alright,” said the coach.
The Sharks have clinched a playoff berth under the head coach in his first season in San Jose, and DeBoer never really seemed to have a doubt it would happen, even as the club muddled its way through the first half.
The coach has had his finger on the pulse from the very start, and there is arguably no single individual more responsible for the team’s turnaround from last season’s unpleasantness than the 47-year-old with a pair of law degrees.
* * *
It starts with the construction of the roster.
While Doug Wilson should clearly get some kudos for what he’s done to remedy the Sharks’ wretched roster from 2014-15 that featured a least half a dozen regulars that weren’t NHL quality, DeBoer has been leading the charge to get the right guys in the dressing room.
Joel Ward, added in the offseason, had conversations with DeBoer before inking a three-year deal with San Jose on July 3. The forward had played for DeBoer in the World Championships, and DeBoer was familiar with Ward’s game and his character going all the way back to juniors.
Dainius Zubrus, who played for the coach in New Jersey, was brought in at DeBoer’s behest when it became evident that players like Barclay Goodrow and Nikolay Goldobin weren’t ready to be contributors at the NHL level. Zubrus has served as a mentor for the Sharks’ young depth forwards while playing 11:35 a night – something those aforementioned young players weren’t able to do.
On defense, DeBoer was reluctant to play Mirco Mueller, who wasn’t ready for the NHL last season or this one. He benched Matt Tennyson for an entire game on Dec. 20 in Chicago, sending perhaps another message to the front office that he wanted better options for depth defenders. Enter Roman Polak, who played for Sharks assistant coach Steve Spott in Toronto last season.
One of Wilson’s major flaws over the past two years has been rushing young players to the Sharks, or overvaluing players already in the system. DeBoer is helping to reverse that trend, and Wilson, to his credit, has listened to his coach and reacted appropriately.
* * *
The way DeBoer has handled the Sharks’ two most valuable players this season – Joe Thornton and Brent Burns – has also been masterful. Talk to either of those two guys about how they’ve been able to thrive, and the coaching staff will be one of the first things they mention.
For Thornton, it was evident at the end of last season he wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with Todd McLellan. There were still some feelings of betrayal when it came to Wilson, too, as evidenced by their public disagreement in March. Simply having any new coach in place probably would have been beneficial to the future Hall-of-Famer.
DeBoer, though, has given Thornton and his teammates many more days off than they ever got under McLellan. The 36-year-old said recently: “I think the key this year has been the days off. It really gives us more energy throughout games, and I think you’ve seen it with us in the standings so far.”
Thornton is fifth in the NHL in scoring with 79 points, 14 more than he had all of last season.
Getting Burns to play a Norris Trophy-level defensive game has likely been a bit more complicated. There was no single player caught between the toxic Wilson-McLellan relationship more than Burns, when management decided to move him back to the blue line following the 2014 playoffs after a season-and-a-half as a productive winger.
McLellan was so against that decision, that at one point in the second half last year he purposely didn’t ask Wilson to recall any extra forwards from Worcester, in the hope that he’d get to move Burns back up front again.
DeBoer, though, has been adamant from day one that Burns is a defenseman, and a stud defenseman at that. While Burns was still adjusting from last season’s confusion throughout the first half, DeBoer kept giving him big minutes anyway. It’s paid off, as Burns has developed into a blue line beast over the past three months.
“They’ve been great,” Burns said of DeBoer and the assistants on Nov. 23. “Just the atmosphere has been so good. They’re working with you, they’re positive. If you do make a mistake, you’re right back out [on the ice].”
Of course, a fair evaluation of the Sharks in their first season under DeBoer won’t be possible until the playoff results are in. In seven seasons as a head coach, this will be just DeBoer’s second appearance.
In his first, in 2011-12 with New Jersey, DeBoer advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The way he’s handled the Sharks so far, there’s reason to believe he could see his second one of those, too.