Why the Sharks fired Peter DeBoer, and what happens next

NHL News

The San Jose Sharks became the latest NHL team to fire its head coach, as they parted ways with Peter DeBoer on Wednesday night.

Bob Boughner, an assistant coach with the Sharks, takes over on an interim basis. Meanwhile, the team also let go assistant coaches Dave Barr, Steve Spott and goalie coach Johan Hedberg.

You’ve probably got questions — Was this really DeBoer’s fault? Are there trades on the way? — and we’re here to answer them, along with doling out a grade on the move.


What took so long?

Please recall last May, when the Sharks lost in Game 6 of the Western Conference final to the St. Louis Blues. It was the second time DeBoer got the Sharks to the conference final, after having won it in 2016, his first season in San Jose. He made the playoffs in all four of his seasons with the Sharks, and the team hit 100 points in back-to-back seasons coming into this one. Simply put, the team was successful and DeBoer was a reason for that success. So that, combined with another year on his contract worth over $3 million, bought him some time.

(Although one wonders how the Sharks bench would have looked in 2019-20 had they not had that miraculous comeback against Vegas in Game 7 of the first round. A great “what if” with DeBoer, no doubt.)

But it was clear something had to change this season with the Sharks. They were a perilously inconsistent team, taking some giant leaps backward while inching forward. A four-game losing streak to start the season; then a five-game losing streak; then a six-game winning streak; and then a five-game winless streak that ended up being the last straw for general manager Doug Wilson. The Sharks went on the road for four games and lost all four of them, collecting only a single point in a shootout loss to Carolina. They were outscored 23-7 during this five-game streak.

This is a veteran team bumping up against the salary cap. That limited Wilson’s options, but that experience also bought the group some time to steady the ship before the GM had to take action. On Wednesday, the ship was sinking and action was taken, and DeBoer was dumped after four-plus seasons.

How much of this was Peter DeBoer’s fault?

DeBoer was undone by sub-replacement-level goaltending, and an offense that could no longer score enough to compensate for its defensive faults.

Over the past two seasons, no team in the NHL had a lower save percentage (.884) than the Sharks. Martin Jones (minus-11.0) was second to last and fellow goalie Aaron Dell (minus-5.1) was fourth to last in goals saved above average. Even if you make the argument that this duo faced high-quality chances due to the Sharks skaters’ lax defense, they weren’t making the saves they needed to make: Jones was 54th in the NHL over the past two seasons in high-danger save percentage.

Bad goaltending gets coaches fired. Just ask John Hynes, formerly of the New Jersey Devils this season.

Last season, the Sharks were second in the NHL in goals per game (3.52) and sixth in power-play efficiency (23.6%). But the departure of center Joe Pavelski via free agency and some underwhelming play from their top offensive players has led to the Sharks being 24th in offense (2.64) and with a power play that’s 23rd in the league (16.0%). There are probably tactical changes DeBoer could have made to solidify their defense better. But they would have ended up sacrificing more offense in a season when goals were already hard to come by.

No coach is without fault when he’s fired for a lack of on-ice success. Where DeBoer can take some blame is in the discipline department, as the Sharks lead the NHL in penalty time per game (12 minutes, 36 seconds) and times shorthanded (120). But overall, DeBoer is paying for this mess, rather than having made it.

Tell me about Bob Boughner.

Boughner, who was hired on an interim basis, is best known for his journeyman NHL career, which included stints with the Buffalo Sabres, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche.

After retirement, he became the head coach of the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, leading them to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. That led to a season as an assistant coach in Columbus, before he returned to Windsor from 2011-15. He served with DeBoer on the Sharks’ bench in 2015-17, and then became head coach of the Florida Panthers for two seasons, compiling an 80-62-22 record but failing to make the postseason. He was replaced by three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville last summer, and Boughner returned to the Sharks as an assistant.

He’s known for his work with defensemen. Under Boughner, Sharks star Brent Burns was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2015-16 and won the award in 2016-17.

More intriguing are the new assistants. Roy Sommer, head coach of the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Barracuda, comes on as an assistant coach. He’s the all-time leader in wins (772) in the AHL. Mike Ricci, the gritty forward who played 1,099 games in the NHL — including in San Jose for seven seasons — has been brought on with Boughner. He was a development coach with the organization. Finally, Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks’ all-time leader in games played (563), wins (293) and shutouts (50), moves from being a goaltending consultant to becoming the new goalie coach.

Will the Sharks make any big trades in tandem with this move?

Wilson is never shy about making a big, aggressive move to improve his team — witness the recent trades that brought Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane to San Jose. But he faces some obstacles in trying to pull off another one.

The Sharks have just $540,926 in available cap space at the moment, per Cap Friendly. They don’t own their own first- and third-round picks this season, nor their second-rounder next season. Their prospect pool also needs a refill: The Sharks have the 24th-best farm system in the NHL, per ESPN’s Chris Peters.

Never underestimate Wilson’s ability to pull of a doozy of a deal, but for the moment the coaching change is the jolt he’s sending through the locker room.

Can they turn it around and make the playoffs?

The Sharks are 15-16-2 for 32 points on the season, sitting five points out of the final wild-card spot and six points behind third place in the Pacific Division. Their .485 points percentage is the fourth-lowest in the conference. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic calculates that the Sharks have an 11% chance of making the playoffs at the moment.

They can turn it around, however. It has to start with the offense. Logan Couture (29 points), Kane (13 goals), Tomas Hertl (24 points) and Karlsson (24 points) have contributed. Burns (21 points) needs to be better. So does Timo Meier (20 points). They need to find some offensive outside their top six as well. But the real key is the power play, which was so valuable to this team last season. It’s adjusted so poorly to life after Pavelski, who scored 12 of his 38 goals on the man advantage last season. If it can catch fire, the offense thrives off it.

Oh, and some better goaltending would be optimal, too.

What was the highlight of Peter DeBoer’s time in San Jose?

The run to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season. The season prior, the Sharks had missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003. DeBoer came in and changed the culture, giving the veteran players more time off and changing the general attitude of the locker room. San Jose had been to the conference finals three other times in its franchise history without a Stanley Cup appearance. Even though they fell to the Penguins in an entertaining series, the Sharks went further with DeBoer than they had before, or since.

Grade the decision.

B-plus. This wasn’t working anymore, and the season was starting to get away from them. Wilson clearly feels he’s built a playoff-caliber team, and clearly knows how much of ownership’s money is invested in it. This lack of success wasn’t on DeBoer, but after 33 games it was clear he wasn’t going to be the coach to rally this group after four seasons with the players’ attention. As Wilson said, “When you have had a level of past success, change is never easy, but we feel this team is capable of much more than we have shown thus far and that a new voice is needed.”

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