One day in late January can offer a glimpse into why the New Jersey Devils fired Peter DeBoer on Friday afternoon, one day after Christmas.
It was the day before the Devils would face the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium in a regular-season contest when DeBoer was asked about his starting goaltender for the following day's outdoor extravaganza.
Manufactured hoopla aside, it was a somewhat important contest for the Devils; they were 22-19-11 and one point out of a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
DeBoer had a decision to make for that game: Should he start Cory Schneider, the superior goaltender coming off two outstanding performances in a similarly outstanding season, or Martin Brodeur, the declining, once-great player in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career.
DeBoer chose Brodeur.
"Well, I'm not a big statistics guy," DeBoer said of starting the goaltender with the .905 save percentage over the one that was sitting at .928. "I mean, I think those are a little misleading. I think despite the fact that Marty's save percentage is a little lower. Marty has played some excellent hockey for us."
The Devils lost 7-3. Brodeur allowed six goals on 21 shots. The Devils would never get that close to a playoff spot the rest of the season.
|Peter DeBoer coaching record with New Jersey|
|2011-12||48-28-6||50.4||Lost in Stanley Cup final|
|2014-15||12-17-7||48.4||14th in East|
There were plenty of factors that led to DeBoer's dismissal that were not his doing—he didn't build this aging, ineffective roster through free agency, a necessity after Lou Lamoriello whiffed in so many drafts the past decade—but his mismanagement of goaltenders was heinous.
The 2013-14 Devils were foiled by ineptitude in the shootout as much as anything. There's not much DeBoer can do about a team that goes 0-13 in breakaway contests. But the one area where DeBoer and any competent coach could have made a difference for a team that missed the postseason by five points was how he used his goaltenders.
Schneider had Vezina Trophy numbers last season (1.97/.921), although he only played 45 games (43 starts). Brodeur had the type of numbers (2.51/.905) that would get most goaltenders relegated to the AHL, yet DeBoer started him 39 times, perhaps more interested in satisfying a legend's ego than concerning himself with team needs.
Brodeur allowed at least four goals in six losses last season; if Schneider splits those six games, the Devils are a playoff team.
Perhaps attempting to make up for lost time last season, DeBoer seemed intent on running Schneider into the ground this season. The clear-cut No. 1 goaltender at last, Schneider started the team's first 20 games and 27 of 28, a sign DeBoer may have been coaching for his job when the puck dropped on this season.
One year after starting a .905 goaltender in half his team's contests, DeBoer was petrified to start Scott Clemmensen or Keith Kinkaid as Schneider appeared desperate for a breather during his fledgling first two months.
Schneider leads the league with 32 starts and his .917 save percentage is about eight points below his career mark entering 2014-15. The blame for that decline falls mostly on DeBoer and somewhat on Lamoriello, the architect of an old team that seems designed to hit the early buffet at a Golden Corral.
The average age of the Devils players is 30.2, nearly two full years older than the next-oldest team, the Philadelphia Flyers. With age comes injuries—they've lost 130 man-games to injuries, fourth-most in the league—and a lack of speed; there's no way to calculate in-game speed, but the Devils look like a team that forgot to take its skate guards off.
DeBoer was given the cast of Golden Girls and asked to make a blockbuster teenage vampire movie.
That doesn't mean DeBoer didn't bring this on himself, too.
When DeBoer arrived in 2011-12, the Devils played an aggressive, attacking, forecheck-at-all-costs style that got them to within two victories of a Stanley Cup.
The past two seasons—ones admittedly played without 2011-12 stars Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk and much less talent—the Devils have used a far more conservative style. "Safe" is the word said by some players in the locker room to describe the team's style of play but never in a derogatory way.
Maybe this team can't play that same aggressive style, and maybe the players know that safe is their best shot at winning.
But safe must translate into stingy defense and wins, and that wasn't happening this season. The Devils allowed a league-best 25.5 shots per game last season; that number ballooned to 30.6 this season, ninth-worst in the league.
That's an indictment of DeBoer, who is coaching a nearly identical team to the one he had last season. The Devils narrowly missed the playoffs, added Michael Cammalleri and cleared the way for Schneider during the offseason, yet somehow things have gotten worse.
Another nail in DeBoer's coffin goes back to Schneider and his .917 save percentage, one that would be a lot better if the team's penalty kill wasn't so anemic. Schneider ranks ninth in even-strength save percentage at .930 but has been hamstrung by the league's eighth-worst penalty kill.
DeBoer's insistence on using Bryce Salvador so heavily on the penalty kill, despite the defenseman's clear lack of foot speed while shorthanded this season has been detrimental. In Salvador's 15 contests, in which he averaged 4:02 of shorthanded ice time per game, the Devils allowed 17 power-play goals and went 6-7-2.
Of those 17 goals, Salvador was on the ice for 12 of them.
Since Salvador was forced from the lineup with a lower-body injury on Nov. 10, the Devils have allowed seven power-play goals on 71 shots, a robust 90.1 percentage.
It seems everything else has faltered since the penalty kill has corrected itself, so where would the Devils be if an injury hadn't forced DeBoer's hand with Salvador?
DeBoer's stubborn nature when it comes to playing certain young defensemen (Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas) and a blinding love of others (Jon Merrill, Damon Severson) never made much sense either. DeBoer and the Devils put Larsson's development on the back burner when the playoffs became a reality during the 2011-12 season, and that's where the fourth pick in the 2011 draft has mostly remained.
And 5-on-5 play as a whole is the biggest reason why DeBoer's firing is justified: The Devils are 23rd in Fenwick this season, which is a huge dip from their fifth-place finish a season ago. There simply hasn't been enough roster turnover to muster a defense of DeBoer in this area.
The Devils won't announce a replacement for DeBoer until Saturday morning. There is still time for the team to climb nine points in the standings and reach a wild-card spot if it finds the right coach, but the damage DeBoer has done may be irreversible this season.
And the damage done by Lamoriello over the past decade may be irreversible for years to come.