Panthers Welcome Familiar Face Tonight

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. — Tonight’s game between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center is the second morsel in the Thanksgiving Feast, but it’s more than just that. If you’re flipping through the handy schedule or checking online, it looks like just another game between two good teams.

The Devils (10-7-1) have 21 points and rank tenth in the Eastern Conference standings while playing one less game than the Southeast Division-leading Panthers, so the matchup is a good one. The two clubs are also playing well — the Devils are 3-1 on the road trip, while Florida is 5-2-3 in its last 10 games. A win by the Devils wraps up a fantastic road swing. The Panthers, meanwhile, just want to keep the momentum going at home.

But there’s another issue at play tonight that has nothing to do with future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, former Panther Ryan Carter or any player on the ice for that matter. Instead, the attention will be on new Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who was fired by the Panthers one day after last season ended following three years of service. Here’s what DeBoer told The Record’s Tom Gulitti about tonight’s game:

“For a lot of reasons I’d like to win that one,” DeBoer said. “Obviously, the big picture is we want to finish this road trip off the right way and we want to keep feeling good and playing the way we are.”

The key here clearly is “for a lot of reasons.” Naturally, DeBoer has taken this a little personally, which is just human nature. DeBoer, who was well-liked during his tenure here, is reacting as anyone likely would at being fired for the first time. He coached under three different Florida GMs, so there was very little continuity going on to make the team’s effort any easier. The constant turnover, both in management and player personnel, worked against him.

DeBeoer also had abysmal talent — sometimes the Panthers resembled nothing more than an AHL squad, especially after last year’s trade deadline. The only bright spot in the final two months was the Sergei Samsonov-Stephen Weiss-Niclas Bergfors line, which showed promise, skill and production. But after Florida beat Washington 1-0 on April 9, closing a second consecutive bad campaign with a 30-40-12 mark, GM Dale Tallon fired DeBoer the next morning. DeBoer’s stint as Florida’s bench boss ended with a 103-107-36 record.

But DeBoer was also complicit in the team’s failures. While he didn’t have much skill to work with, his system didn’t get the most out of his players’ abilities. Florida’s constant cycling ended in very little offensive production, and the low slot in front of opposing goalies should have been marked off with orange cones because it was essentially a restricted area for Panther forwards. He played Scott Clemmensen too often and Tomas Vokoun too little, creating discord with the Czech netminder. And DeBoer’s legacy in Florida is leading teams who couldn’t hold late one-goal and sometimes two-goal leads.

“I haven’t been back to a place I’ve been fired before,” said DeBoer, 43. “It will be a first-time experience for me. I had three great years there. I met a lot of great people. I’m looking forward to catching up with some of the friends I made there.”

The visit by the Devils tonight will finally put an end to the DeBoer era in Florida, and when New Jersey returns in three weeks, DeBoer won’t be an issue. But for the emotions involved right now, this game is necessary.

For Pete’s sake.

By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com