Pete DeBoer learned a valuable lesson during his three years in the National Hockey League.
“When I first started, I was cocky, confident we could do it all,'' DeBoer said last week. “Then I realized it's all about the players. You have to have the horses to be successful in this league.''
DeBoer hasn't had many thoroughbreds during his time with the Florida Panthers and on Sunday, the team's lack of success during the past two seasons cost him his job. The Panthers announced that DeBoer would not return for the final year of his contract.
Assistant coach Jim Hulton and video coach Jamie Pringle will also not be retained. Gord Murphy and goalie coach Robb Tallas will be allowed to stay and interview with the new coach.
“I've never been fired before,'' DeBoer told The Miami Herald minutes after his departure was announced. “Strange feeling.''
DeBoer was a highly successful junior coach in the Ontario Hockey League, winning the Memorial Cup – the Canadian junior championship – in 2003.
At the end of the 2007-08 season, DeBoer decided he was ready to give the big leagues a try and interviewed with the Panthers, Senators and Kings before becoming the Panthers' 10th coach in franchise history on June 13, 2008 – DeBoer's 40th birthday.
A week later, leading scorer Olli Jokinen was traded to Phoenix, one of just a number of high-level players to depart (re: Nathan Horton, Bryan McCabe and Jay Bouwmeester) during DeBoer's tenure.
During the interview process, DeBoer was told by owner Alan Cohen and general manager Jacques Martin that the Panthers would do everything it took to win, and if that meant spending money to make a move if the team was close to a playoff spot, it would be done. DeBoer liked what he heard and signed on to coach in South Florida.
Those early promises were never fulfilled.
Cohen decided to divest himself of majority ownership sometime during DeBoer's first season as the Panthers missed the playoffs by a single point. Florida tied Montreal for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference but lost out on a tiebreaker. The Panthers big addition at the trade deadline that year: Seldom used defenseman Steve Eminger.
Florida hasn't been that close again. This year's team finished with 72 points – 21 points behind the eighth-seeded Rangers. The Panthers finished last in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. DeBoer finishes his Panthers reign 103-107-36.
“I think he's been a good coach. We had 93 points in his first year and he got a lot out of that group,'' center Stephen Weiss said. “At the end of the day, you need the players. I don't think he had that here, those guys you could lean on to get the job done. It's been a depleted lineup with injuries and everything. To be .500 or so, I think he did a great job with what he had.''
Martin left to become the Canadiens coach soon after that season ended as the team's ownership came into question. The Panthers were sellers at the past two trade deadlines as the roster was depleted for future considerations. Current general manager Dale Tallon came on last May and decided to keep DeBoer on as head coach and the two seemed to have a good relationship. But in a statement on Sunday, Tallon said it was time for a change.
“I think Dale has it right,'' DeBoer said Friday morning. “The approach isn't to just get into the playoffs, get the eighth spot and get two home games as you get swept. You want to be in the playoffs and have a chance to actually win. I understand and support the decisions made, the direction they are taking. It's not easy being a competitive person and being on the front lines every day. But that's what you inherit with this job.”
Tallon and DeBoer plan to meet with the South Florida media Monday at the team's training facility in Coral Springs as players gather for their season-ending exit interviews.
“These decisions are always tough to make, but we felt strongly that it was the right time to make a change,” Tallon said in the statement. “We need to go in a new direction with a fresh approach and philosophy as it relates to our head coaching position.''
Tallon has likely been looking for coaching candidates over the past few weeks despite publicly saying a decision on DeBoer and his staff hadn't been made. DeBoer said last month that he wanted to “finish the job” with the Panthers but knew Sunday's announcement was coming for weeks.
Florida's next coach will be its 11th in franchise history but only the third since Martin came to the Panthers from Ottawa at the end of the 2003-04 season. Coincidentally, DeBoer is expected to be a candidate with the Senators as he is said to have had good interviews with owner Eugene Melnyk and general manager Bryan Murray in Barbados back in 2008.
The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since Murray was Florida's general manager in 2000. Florida has had seven general managers, (soon-to-be) seven coaches and two owners since firing Murray on Dec. 28, 2000.
“I have no regrets and I don't have trouble sleeping at night,'' DeBoer said Friday. “I know as a coaching staff, we emptied the tank and got this team as prepared as they could be. When I came here, it was to instill structure and accountability.
"While it hasn't resulted in a playoff appearance or as many wins as people would like or we would like, there's no doubt those things are evident in the way we play. We haven't ducked tough decisions in holding good players accountable. That's all you can do. I'm comfortable with what we've done.''
FLORIDA PANTHERS COACHES
Roger Neilson 1993-95
Doug MacLean 1995-97*
Bryan Murray 1997-98
Terry Murray 1998-2000*
Duane Sutter 2000-01
Mike Keenan 2001-03
Rick Dudley 2003-04
John Torchetti 2004
Jacques Martin 2004-08
Pete DeBoer 2008-11
(*) -- Reached playoffs
FLORIDA PANTHERS GENERAL MANAGERS
Bobby Clarke 1993-94
Bryan Murray 1994-2000
Bill Torrey 2000-01
Cliff Fletcher 2001-02
Rick Dudley 2002-04
Mike Keenan 2004-06
Jacques Martin 2006-09
Randy Sexton 2009-10
Dale Tallon 2010-present