The Dallas Stars have a new head coach, as the team announced Tuesday that ex-Vegas Golden Knights boss Pete DeBoer will replace Rick Bowness at a reported cost of more than $4 million annually for the next four years. Depending on the official number, this would put DeBoer on the higher end of the NHL’s coaching payscale, above New York’s Gerard Gallant and Philadelphia’s John Tortorella but just below Peter Laviolette in Washington and Todd McLellan in L.A.
Which is a decent chunk of change for a coach who, at least superficially, bears some strong resemblance to the man he’s replacing. At face value, there are some similarities with Bowness. DeBoer turned his team into a contender after only a brief run, bringing Vegas to the 2020 Western Conference Finals less than a year after replacing Gallant. Vegas’ opponent in that series? The Dallas Stars. And, also like Bowness, DeBoer has yet to reach similar heights in the two seasons since. Now he’s in Dallas, with the same directive Bowness had: win now.
That’s where the similarities screech to a halt. DeBoer is a massive upgrade over Bowness on paper, with a career points percentage of .566 (with a record of 513-379-123) that dwarfs Bowness’ .391 (212-351-28). Even if you allow for the fact that Bowness’ stats are misleading due to the awful teams he once took over in Ottawa and New York, DeBoer has a ton more experience as a head coach and much more success, including seven playoff appearances in his 15-year NHL tenure. On two different occasions, he’s taken teams to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year on the job: in 2012 with New Jersey, and 2016 with San Jose. Not bad for a former lawyer.
It’s easy to see why Dallas chose him. Ever since Lindy Ruff left in 2017, this team has struggled to score goals. Under Ken Hitchcock, Dallas ranked 17th in expected goals at even strength (22nd in actual goals per game). Under Jim Montgomery, the Stars moved up a spot in expected goals (16th) while dropping all the way down to 30th in actual goals scored. Same deal under Bowness: the Stars were 30th in goals per game this season, 27th the year before that, and 30th the year he took over for Montgomery midseason.
Conversely, here is how DeBoer’s Knights ranked in expected goals: first (2020), first (2021), and fourth (2022). Whereas Bowness asked his defensemen to join the play but not lead it, DeBoer added minutes to Shea Theodore’s workload when he started exercising his freedom in the offensive zone more effectively. If Dallas needs offense from a new system, they’ve picked the right candidate.
But numbers alone won’t give us a better idea of whether or not DeBoer is the right candidate. This job is also about adjustments, an area that doomed Bowness. This past season, in particular, we saw a Stars team that genuinely believed winning one-goal games was a strength rather than the strategic flaw it is. They also lost an alarming amount of games due to third-period collapses, a byproduct of Bowness’ longstanding reluctance to trust youth in key spots despite Dallas’ best talent often skewing younger.
Is DeBoer any better? Let’s turn to a series of visuals from Micah Blake McCurdy. Below is a season for each team DeBoer coached: Florida (top left), New Jersey (top right), San Jose (bottom left), and Vegas (bottom right). Each number represents a different game state, and the offensive and defensive trends that emerge within them (0 refers to tied situations, +1 for leading by a goal, -1 for trailing by a goal, +2 for leading by two goals, and -2 for trailing by two goals).
The most important takeaway is that DeBoer’s teams play conservatively without being inert. In his most recent stints, with the Sharks and the Knights, his teams gave up very little regardless of whether they were trailing or leading. This is in very stark contrast to Bowness, whose Stars couldn’t generate shots when trailing and couldn’t stop shots when leading.
DeBoer looks like a slam dunk on the surface. So why the trepidation from fans? Is there something under the surface that should give them pause?
Well, yes. A few things, in fact. His 2019 conference finals team in San Jose had a whopping eight players score more than 50 points. The Vegas roster he took to the conference semifinals in 2021 also had eight players with more than 50 points when adjusting for games played. The team he’s inheriting in Dallas, meanwhile, had three last year. DeBoer is used to working with a lot more than this roster has to offer, which includes a lot of players either in decline (Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Suter) or in need of development (Denis Gurianov, Jacob Peterson, Thomas Harley, Wyatt Johnston).
Which is the crux of what makes DeBoer a risky hire despite his pedigree. If the Stars don’t have a roster that can win now, why are they hiring a win-now coach? DeBoer is the guy you hire to get dominant teams to assert themselves, not one to help you transition from mere contender to potential favorite. He needs a full deck to really shine, and does anyone really believe Dallas has the roster to beat Colorado, Edmonton, Calgary, or St. Louis in the West?
The other, somewhat weaker argument against DeBoer is the same one that led Vegas to dismiss him: the lack of success on the power play. Vegas was 25th this year and 22nd the year before with the man advantage. They also allowed a lot of rebounds—opponents tallied 157 rebound shots this year (ranking 18th) and 127 the year before (30th). DeBoer has been explicit about having players block shots, too, which isn’t a bad thing on the surface given the success of his teams. But it took a toll on Vegas with top players like Max Pacioretty and Alec Martinez suffering injuries as a direct result. I hesitate to put too much weight behind these because a bad power play can be fixed by a good assistant coach (like Marc Savard?), and Dallas ranked pretty high on shots blocked under Bowness as well. The rebounds allowed are the only area of moderate concern, given that Bowness’ squad was 13th this season and second the season before that.
What do I think about all this? I don’t know. There are red flags and yellow ones, the most critical being that Bowness’ Stars outranked DeBoer’s Knights defensively all three seasons looking only at expected goals allowed. But there’s also plenty to like. First and foremost, I think DeBoer will get more out of this Dallas roster than Montgomery, Hitchcock, or Bowness. His Vegas teams were much more deliberate on the forecheck, and his offensive zone pressure requires both defensemen to become options, meaning Miro Heiskanen will have a lot more freedom to create offense. As for the question of adjustments, DeBoer has only been ousted in the first round once, and his teams have won more than two rounds on five separate occasions across three different organizations. That’s hard for a stubborn coach to do. I also liked what he said during his Vegas exit interviews. Rather than blame players or injuries for a disappointing season, DeBoer took full responsibility, saying he and his coaching staff should “look in the mirror” to figure out how they could still be playing. That’s not a small thing.
Still, fans want something fresh, and DeBoer feels like an upgrade on more of the same. It’s worth remembering that the last time Dallas brought in a supposed breath of fresh air, Montgomery brought more of the same and that sort of thing led to current playoff all-star Valeri Nichushkin bouncing up and down the lineup before getting bounced out of Dallas entirely.
A fresh voice doesn’t automatically mean a fresh perspective. But whatever DeBoer’s faults, and however long he’s been an NHL musical chairs coach, he’ll bring a proven system to a roster that’s finally getting an upgrade behind the bench. DeBoer is a good hire. The real question is whether that good hire is coming at the right time.