When Pete DeBoer was cleaning out his office in New Jersey after getting fired from the Devils on Christmas 2014, one of the biggest criticisms of him at that time was that he wasn't giving the younger players enough of an opportunity. The Devils were an aging team that had lost star forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in recent seasons, but had some high round draft picks waiting to make the jump and help fill that void.
DeBoer, though, didn't give them enough of an opportunity, according to many Devils supporters. Guys like Mattias Tedenby (first round, 2008), Jacob Josefson (first round, 2009), Stefan Matteau (first round, 2012), and Eric Gelinas (second round, 2009) were spending most of their time in the minors, while the NHL club had a miserable 12-17-7 record at the time of his dismissal.
Heard much from those guys lately?
Tedenby is in the Swedish league, a first round bust. Matteau is still in the minors, having moved on to the Canadiens organization. Josefson has just one goal in 27 games this season for New Jersey, and Gelinas has one assist in 27 games as a defenseman for a the worst team in the league, Colorado.
When he was introduced as the Sharks' head coach on May 28, 2015, one of the first questions I asked DeBoer was what he learned from his experience in New Jersey regarding young players, and the keys to successfully integrating them into an NHL lineup. The Sharks were coming off of a playoff-less season in which one of their biggest problems was rushing players rather than letting them develop.
"The first thing is, this is the toughest league in the world. It's the best league in the world, and it's awfully hard for young players to step into this league and make an immediate impact," DeBoer said that day. "At the same time, it's critical that they do, because you see that the teams that are playing [in the playoffs], all are getting contributions from those guys."
DeBoer pointed out that some young players did make the leap under his watch, including Adam Henrique, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson. All are still key contributors in New Jersey's lineup.
Still, "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."
Or, sometimes they just aren't good enough.
The way he's handled the Sharks in his season-and-a-half, it's evident that DeBoer knows what he's doing when it comes to recognizing when a player is absolutely ready for the NHL on a full-time basis. In the first half of the 2015-16 season, he quickly discerned that some players that were leftover from Todd McLellan's final season simply weren't NHL-caliber.
Barclay Goodrow, Mirco Mueller and Nikolay Goldobin were replaced with veterans like Dainius Zubrus, Nick Spaling and Roman Polak – not the sexiest names, but guys that DeBoer knew were experienced and responsible. All played key roles in the Sharks capturing their first Western Conference championship.
But beyond those obvious moves, there have been some subtle decisions that the coach has made that have also paid dividends. In a third period on Nov. 25, 2015, for example, Tomas Hertl rode the bench for the final 20 minutes against Chicago. The next game against Calgary, he scored his first goal in 19 games and added an assist. In early January last year Chris Tierney was reassigned to the Barracuda, and was a different player upon his return. It took Dylan DeMelo months to prove to the coach that he belonged in the NHL, making some trips back and forth between the Sharks and Barracuda.
This season, rookie Kevin Labanc came up and had an impressive stretch, but as soon as he started to go cold with no goals in 16 games, he was reassigned to the Barracuda while Marcus Sorensen was recalled and notched an assist in his debut on Tuesday in Buffalo. Ryan Carpenter scored a goal against the Kings on Dec. 18, and was reassigned to the Barracuda the very next day. Carpenter has returned, but has been a healthy scratch lately despite some production as the fourth line center.
Those kinds of decisions don't always sit well with fans, some of which fail to see the big picture. They'll spot a guy like the relatively unskilled Micheal Haley in the lineup and wonder why he's getting minutes over players like Carpenter, Labanc, or even Goldobin, the skilled former first rounder who hasn't yet gotten in an NHL game this season.
DeBoer, though, has shown to be a master at knowing when a player is ready for the NHL. The track record proves it. He's stayed true to his word that first day he was introduced, and it's working out wonderfully so far.