The Kitchener Rangers welcomed an old friend this summer as former General Manager and Head Coach Peter DeBoer stopped by Sportsworld Arena for a visit. After seven years, two Ontario Hockey League championships and a Memorial Cup title in 2003, he moved on the NHL and a spot behind the Florida Panthers’ bench.
The 2011-12 season was his first as Head Coach of the New Jersey Devils, who went into the playoffs as the number six seed and Eastern Conference Champions. Before jumping on the ice to join some local skaters participating in a summer hockey camp, the longtime leader of Rangers Nation took a moment to catch up and spoke candidly about the season, reuniting with David Clarkson and the challenges and rewards of being a coach.
Q: What lessons can you take away from a season that saw the Devils make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?
A: I don’t know if you learn lessons – I think it reinforces what you already know. Winning has four or five key ingredients if you’re going to go on a long run: get great goaltending, stay healthy, get on a roll at the right time. And your team has to play the right way, especially your best players. And if you can do those things, you have a chance every year, and when you stray off that path or get away from those things, then it doesn’t work.
It was nice for me, because those first three years in the NHL, in Florida, there were a lot of ups and downs. We were close to the playoffs in that first year, then had a few years when we flamed out and sold at the deadline. So this season was a nice reminder for me about winning, going on a run again. The last one I’d been on was the Memorial Cup year here in Kitchener in 2008 so it was good to reinforce those lessons that I’ve learned over the years.
Q. Is it difficult to take those lessons and systems that you taught to junior players and apply them to a new dressing room in the NHL, where the players are maybe more set in their ways?
A: It is a little tougher, the message has to be delivered a little bit differently than at the Junior level. But the core values are still the same and the players still want the same things. The delivery’s just a little different.
I don’t think anyone maximizes their potential on their own. Those guys are no different the guys we coached here in Kitchener. They want structure, they want a game plan and they want accountability. It’s just in the delivery of the message. Ilya [Kovalchuk] and Marty [Brodeur], great players like that, they’re great for a reason. It’s because they’re competitive people. They just want to win and they are willing to look at it from every angle. They’re open to anything that you want to do as long as they think that it’s going to get them to the end goal of winning games and winning a Stanley Cup. Those guys were on side and on the same page all year and both were a real pleasure to work with.
Q: You mention the players you coached here in Kitchener; you have the opportunity now to watch guys who played for you perform in the NHL on a regular basis. The Rangers program is one that has developed a number of professional players. What is the key to this organization’s success?
A: Over the years, working with Steve Spott, we realized that there are a lot of great OHL players who either don’t go on to play in the NHL because they can’t play the game the right way, or who adapt and play a different role at the NHL level. Gregory Campbell was a goal scorer in junior and has taken on a checking role in the NHL. I like to think, and I’m guessing Steve does too, that he learned to check here. We made our goal scorers check and that allowed him to be versatile at the NHL level. It was the same with David Clarkson, same with Derek Roy, same with Mike Richards. I think the job you do preparing these kids here gives them an advantage at the next level – they have a versatility, they can do multiple things.
Q: Rangers fans obviously thrilled to see Mike Richards hoist the Stanley Cup, but there was a lot of pride in this community in the season that Clarkson had playing for you. Did you walk into that dressing room at the start of the season with the idea that he was capable of being a 30-goal scorer?
A: I think Clarky has always had a knack for scoring goals, always had that ability. And that’s going back to when we coached him here in Kitchener. When I took over in New Jersey, he was coming off a 12 or 13-goal year and he was a guy that I really felt needed to find another level. All I did was give him the opportunity to play some more, a little confidence in some key situations and he really took that and ran with it. I didn’t predict 30, but we’ll certainly take it. Now he’s set the bar and he’ll have to do it again!
Q: Adam Henrique was another player on your roster who had a great season, finishing as a Calder Trophy finalist. Do you think your years coaching in the OHL gives you an advantage when it comes to maximizing the potential of young players?
A: I think it gives you an advantage, but somebody breaks through their ceiling every year. Every season there’s someone who comes into the league and turns heads. Who would have thought [Gabriel] Landeskog would come in and lead Colorado in scoring? We all knew he was a good, solid player but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that he would score like he did. That’s the beautiful part about young players: they’re getting better every year and they’re adding to their repertoire of skills. You never want to box those guys in, because a lot of times they will surprise you.
I remember going with Steve Spott to see Adam Henrique play minor hockey for Brantford, in a game against London. I’ve watched Adam since he was a minor midget, but I didn’t have an appreciation for how good a player he is until I actually coached him this year. He’s got huge upside and I really feel like the sky is the limit for him.
Q: Looking ahead, how confident are you that the Devils can repeat the successes of last year?
A: The concern is that you’ve lost your captain in Zach Parise. I really like the fact that we’ve returned just about everybody else. For me, as a second-year coach going into that situation, they know my expectations, they know how we want to play, they know the systems. Last year it was a lot of new stuff and a lot of teaching all year. I like that we can hit the ground running a little more this year. Zach’s a big hole to fill, but in my mind I’ve got the best General Manager in hockey, maybe even in hockey history, and he’s got a knack for filling those kinds of holes, so we’ll see what happens.
Q: Rangers fans are still following your career. The question is – are you still following the Rangers?
A: I check the scores almost daily! I go through my NHL scores and then I always take a peek how Kitchener is doing. I talk to Steve and Troy Smith on a regular basis and I don’t think that will ever change!