NEWARK, N.J. — Peter DeBoer, in the eyes of many, was a surprise choice as the next coach of the New Jersey Devils. Fresh off the franchise’s worst season in recent memory, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello last summer turned to DeBoer to rescue a team that was low on morale, lower on scoring punch and desperate for a new identity.
But why DeBoer? In three seasons with Florida, he could not push the Panthers into the postseason once.
“You have to go through ups and downs,” Lamoriello said on July 19, 2011, after introducing DeBoer. “I think what he went through [in Florida] just made him a better coach. And I felt that in the conversations we had — because of the questions that were asked — the answers that were given were open, down to earth and honest.”
Some 10 months later, DeBoer has more than answers. He has results. After leading New Jersey to 102 points in the regular season and placing the Devils back in the playoffs after missing the tournament last year for the first time since 1996, DeBoer calmly quarterbacked the organization’s fifth run to the Stanley Cup finals.
And the path taken is what will be a lasting memory not only within this proud organization, but for the fans as well. Win or lose against Los Angeles in the finals, which open with Game 1 here on Wednesday night, DeBoer’s first three playoff series victories will be etched in minds for a long time.
“These moments you enjoy,” said DeBoer, whose team will have home-ice advantage for the first time this postseason against the Kings. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first year or your fifth year. So, you don’t get picky when these opportunities come along. You enjoy every minute of it, as much as you can, because it’s awful tough to get here.”
No one knows that more than DeBoer. In Round 1, he had to defeat the Panthers, a team that fired him less than a year before. It took seven games, and New Jersey had to rally from 3-2 down to do so, but the Devils did indeed outlast the Panthers.
In the second round, all New Jersey had to do was defeat Philadelphia, a rival who had won the last two series against the Devils and one that was coming off a convincing six-game victory over Pittsburgh in Round 1. New Jersey dropped Game 1, but never looked back. Four games later, the Devils were shaking hands with the rival Flyers, and were off to the conference finals.
And then in Round 3, DeBoer battled Rangers coach John Tortorella across the benches and in the media. New Jersey again lost Game 1, and was shut out twice, but dominated for long stretches of play and capped off a proud series victory over its biggest rival with an overtime win in Game 6 on Friday night.
Three series. Three wins. None of which came with the home-ice edge.
“Honored,” DeBoer said simply after that Game 6 win, when asked his feelings after being offered the job by Lamoriello. “I mean, I was out of work last June. And July, I got a call from a Hall of Fame general manager who recognized some of the work I had done in Florida, and gave me a chance to work with a group of guys that have a great blend of veteran presence. They know how to win and they had a lot of great young players coming through.
“So I’m fortunate to be sitting here. It could have been a number of different candidates that he talked to, and I’m thankful that I got the opportunity.”
He’s made the most of it. The Devils landed the No. 6 seed in the East after scoring 228 goals. He saw three forwards — Ilya Kovalchuk (37), Zach Parise (31) and David Clarkson (30) — reach 30 tallies. He turned center Adam Henrique, who has two overtime winners this postseason, into a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie. And he delicately balanced the veteran goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg.
Brodeur, 40, a career Devil who is seeking his fourth Stanley Cup title, has played in every playoff game and has been sharp, partly due to the fact that he had rest during the season. Hedberg appeared in 27 regular-season games, in fact. He started 23 of them and won 17.
“You know, this is a resilient group,” DeBoer said. “We’ve just been getting better and better. Just like our season, we talked about a slow build. So, we’re trending in the right direction, and I think we’re playing our best hockey right now.”
Just the way Lamoriello drew it up.