For a team that faced major head-coaching problems and completed its most disappointing season in 13 years, the Devils needed to find the right head coach. They needed to find someone who could continue Jacques Lemaire's success and keep the team fit, motivated and playing to its full potential.
DeBoer, whom the Florida Panthers fired in June, probably won't be able to do that, though. In fact, his stint behind the bench for the Devils might set off another tumultuous season.
DeBoer is a proven minor league coach. He coached in the Ontario Hockey League before joining the Panthers, and he coached the Kitchener Rangers to a Memorial Cup victory — the most prized possession in Canada's major-junior league. But minor-league success doesn't always translate into major-league success.
Just ask John MacLean.
The Devils' ex-head coach was fired in December of 2010 after the Devils started the season horribly. By the time New Jersey's general manager Lou Lamoriello fired MacLean, the Devils were already fighting the Islanders for the league's worst record. Despite having a fairly good coaching resume, MacLean couldn't translate his years as an assistant coach for New Jersey and as the head coach of the Lowell Devils into NHL success. And DeBoer's experience coaching the Devils could end the same way.
DeBoer doesn't have the kind of track record, as a head coach, that the Devils need. He's only coached in the NHL for three years, which makes him a question mark at best, and that's not something that a team that's struggling with its identity needs.
There's no guarantee that DeBoer will be able to keep the team motivated, cultivate the young players, ensure that every player is fit and, most importantly, keep the Devils a defensive-minded team. And that last one is especially important.
The Devils struggled last year because they tried to become an offensive team, even though they aren't. MacLean couldn't keep the defensive identity of the team strong enough, but Lemaire could, and that's part of the reason why the Devils surged in the second half. They returned to the basics, and they need to stick to it. That's going to be a difficult task, especially because Ilya Kovalchuk's presence kind of nudges the team into an offensive direction.
In addition to the identity struggles the Devils are facing, there's a host of problems that DeBoer is going to have to deal with. He needs to figure out what Zach Parise's role on the team is going to be, how to handle the young players like Adam Larsson, Nick Palmieri and Mattais Tedenby, among others, and how to structure a defense that could still be missing one of its biggest pieces in Bryce Salvador. And, of course, there's handling Martin Brodeur, in what could be his last season.
All head coaches face problems like these, and DeBoer can solve them. But it's not going to be easy for a coach who's only had three years of NHL experience to keep the Devils true to their defensive roots. When he was introduced as the new head coach, DoBoer said the Devils need to chase the puck to dictate play, but they need to stick to their defensive foundations. It's one thing to say that, but another thing to implement it when the Devils are caught in-between a transition from an old, pre-lockout defensive style to a new, post-lockout offensive style.
The identity crisis, and the fact that MacLean couldn't solve it, obliterated the Devils during the beginning of last season.
To be fair, DeBoer is a good head coach. He helped the Panthers come extremely close to earning a playoff spot in his first year coaching the team. The Devils may have finished the season on a better note than they started, but the team could easily fall back to disarray without a strong guiding force at the helm.
He's a good coach, but he's just not the right one for the Devils. DeBoer just hasn't proven that he's capable of the task ahead of him or that he's a strong enough leader.
The team might have been better if Lamoriello had decided to coach the team himself. He's done it before and there's no question that the players respect him.
Ken Hitchcock would also have been a good option because he has more NHL experience, and he's a defensive coach who could have kept the Devils on track as a solid defensive team.
Given the coaches who were available, it doesn't seem like DeBoer was the best option. He's just not enough of an established, big-league coach. Then again, if Lamoriello had his way, Lemaire would still be coaching the Devils.