Analysis: DeBoer masterful at integrating young Sharks players

Analysis: DeBoer masterful at integrating young Sharks players

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. 

NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Thornton could play in Switzerland before season


NHL rumors: Sharks' Joe Thornton could play in Switzerland before season

The Sharks' 2019-20 season came to an end on March 11, and the 2020-21 NHL season might not start until December. So what are the players not participating in the NHL restart to do during that six-month hiatus?

Joe Thornton might play hockey in Switzerland. Really. Seriously.

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman first reported Friday that the 22-year NHL veteran could take advantage of a new clause implemented by the NHL and NHLPA.

"Every August, [Thornton] goes to Switzerland," Friedman said on "Hockey Night In Canada" on Saturday. "Now we know the Sharks won't be playing until December and the NHL and the NHLPA have allowed players to sign overseas with out-clauses to come back then. One of the storylines to watch in the summer, over the next month, does Joe Thornton sign overseas in Switzerland to play and be ready and in better shape, even to return to the NHL for his 23rd season, whenever it begins."

The Athletic's Kevin Kurz confirmed Saturday the possibility of Thornton playing in Switzerland until the 2020-21 season begins.

Thornton is an unrestricted free agent, and has made it clear he wants to play in the NHL for a few more years. Lacing up his skates in Switzerland could be a good way for the 41-year-old center to stay in shape.

The Sharks finished the 2019-20 season with the worst record in the Western Conference and have several restricted and unrestricted free agents they will try to re-sign. General manager Doug Wilson and the Sharks front office have just under $15 million in salary cap space, according to

It's unclear at this point if the Sharks plan to bring Thornton back for a 16th season with the franchise, but captain Logan Couture told NBC Sports California's Brodie Brazil in March that he hopes the stoppage caused by the coronavirus pandemic will allow Thornton to return for another season.

[RELATED: Ex-Sharks to root for in NHL restart]

“I look at this selfishly for Jumbo, hoping that he does come back with us next year," Couture told Brazil. “You know it saves an extra 12 games on those legs and that body of wear and tear, I know he’s gonna get a little bit older, but I think saving some time on that body will help us if he does come back with the Sharks, which I know we’re all hoping that he does.”

Thornton's future with the Sharks is unclear at the moment, but it looks like he'll be skating around an ice rink in Switzerland soon.

Sharks' Evander Kane felt like he couldn't be himself while with Jets

Sharks' Evander Kane felt like he couldn't be himself while with Jets

Sharks winger Evander Kane has been one of the most outspoken individuals in recent months in discussing the systemic racism that has plagued not only the country, but specifically the sport he has played his entire life. 

He recently was named co-head of the newly-formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose mission is to "eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey," and appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area's "Race in America: A Candid Conversation," in which he called for athletes to use their platforms for the greater good and not "stick to sports."

In a league that has extremely little minority representation, Kane is one of the relatively few current NHL players who can directly speak to the prevalence of systemic racism within the sport of hockey. As he explained on a recent episode of the NHL's "Soul on Ice" podcast with Kwame Damon Mason, he was exposed to it from the very beginning.

"I think it's engrained in you at a really young age," Kane told Mason. "Hockey is such a team sport, and you learn that when you first put your skates on and are a member of your first team. It's all about the team first, and those types of things are preached. And that's one of the great parts about hockey, is it is a team sport, and you understand that's what you sign up for.

"At the same time, the messaging -- especially in Canada -- that goes along with that is kind of conforming to what everybody else is doing. Individuality and personality is looked at -- especially as a minority player -- in a negative light. It's looked at as an issue. There's some sort of internal, maybe subconscious bias that not only players have, but parents, coaches, etc., and it's unfortunate."

Kane broke into the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers after being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft. But when the Thrashers were moved to Winnipeg and became the Jets in his third NHL season, he encountered an environment similar to the one he described.

"I came into the league with a lot of personality," Kane continued. "Always been a great teammate coming through Junior and so on and so forth. I get to Atlanta, things are fine, things are good, I have my first couple of years in the NHL. And then we get to Winnipeg and it's crazy to me, because for the first time, I felt like I couldn't be myself. I became paranoid with everything I said or did, and really to me, it kind of pushed me into a corner where I felt I couldn't do or say what I wanted to do as a grown man at that point."

[RELATED: Kane discusses NHL's 'Hockey is for Everyone' movement]

Kane was traded from Winnipeg to the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, and -- almost exactly three years later -- was traded from Buffalo to San Jose. Ultimately, he ended up in a situation where he doesn't feel his individuality is restricted or seen as a negative.

"Now, I've definitely grown out of that -- that's expired," Kane added. "And I'm part of an organization and group of guys that really push those individual qualities and the uniqueness of individuals. And I think you look at any team, any great team, any team that has won the Cup -- you look at St. Louis last year -- I'm sure that they weren't 20 of the exact same people. They had different personalities, different players, different skillsets that came together as a team to make themselves great. And I think that's how you build great teams."

The Sharks clearly must improve on the ice to be considered a great team again, but due to the presence of players like Kane and others, it would appear they have one of the necessary ingredients -- in his estimation -- to do so.