He stands behind the New Jersey Devils bench, his demeanor unchanging from play to play, situation to situation. Tie slightly askew, he seems like the most unlikely of coaches to lead a team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But Peter DeBoer has done just that.
After missing the playoffs last season, no one expected the Devils to make a deep playoff run. The Sporting News picked the team to finish ninth, ESPN and Yahoo picked New Jersey to finish outside the top eight and The Hockey News slotted them to finish 11th in the conference. Much of that was due to their seventh coaching change since the lockout in 2004-05.
DeBoer came from the Florida Panthers, with a career 103-107-36 record. He never made the playoffs in three seasons, and Florida never looked like a playoff contender. They always played New Jersey tough, but never threatened to make any postseason noise.
The move seemed confusing to some, but also had the potential to be a good hire. After all, New Jersey couldn't find any stability behind the bench, and with the team in transition, it seemed to be a good idea to hire someone with experience coaching young players.
But a funny thing happened along the way - DeBoer instituted a new system that made the Devils competitive. Former coach John MacLean wanted to install a forecheck and puck control system, but could never get the players to buy into the system. DeBoer did, and New Jersey became a team no longer known for "trap hockey."
The system also helped several players flourish offensively. Four Devils finished with 30-plus goals, and offensive contributions became a four-line luxury. David Clarkson experienced the biggest jump, becoming a 30-goal scorer and looking like he finally fulfilled his potential.
The defense also improved. Breakouts became cripser, and the defense played hard in their own end. They also became more offensive, moving down the boards and pinching to keep the offense flowing.
DeBoer even managed to decrease the workload of Martin Brodeur. The Hall-of-Famer split time with Johan Hedberg throughout the beginning of the season. When the Devils needed him in the second half of the season, Brodeur was fresher than in years past, and his improved play helped the team clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
While it took seven games to defeat the Panthers, there would be no denying the Devils against the Philadelphia Flyers. After losing Game 1, New Jersey outplayed Philadelphia the rest of the series, winning four straight games to clinch their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2003.
While credit goes to the players, DeBoer and company deserve their fair share of praise. He made sure the team executed the forecheck, and drilled discipline into the Devils. That kept them out of needless scrums, and helped stymie a Flyers team expected to roll into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Brodeur credited DeBoer, saying the coaching staff gave New Jersey its biggest advantage.
"Our big weapon is the coaching staff," Brodeur told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "I think they prepare us, they make changes to our system better than a lot of the coaches that I had in the past. And I think we were well prepared to do the things we need to do to be successful. Whoever we’re going to face in the conference final, I’m sure the coaching staff is going to prepare us as well they did against the two teams we faced so far."
Team captain Zach Parise said that the team hasn't even played their best hockey yet.
"It’s great. This is a great," Parise told Gulitti. "We’re all enjoying this. We know we’ve got a lot of work and we have to keep improving and keep getting better. It’s good right now."
Sometimes, the biggest weapons can come in the most unassuming of packages. DeBoer has been the biggest Devils weapon this season, and has them just four wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals.