Does it matter or is it overrated?
That’s the question many general managers ask themselves whenever they have a head coaching vacancy to fill. Some teams want a fresh face with a new approach, while some others are more than happy to get a savvy veteran that’s been there, done that. This year’s Western Conference Final features one of each.
Sharks bench boss Pete DeBoer is three years younger than Blues interim coach Craig Berube, but experience is clearly on his side. DeBoer, 50, has been a head coach in the NHL since 2008-09 and he’s been behind the bench for three three different organizations (Florida and New Jersey).
In his 11 NHL seasons, DeBoer has made it to the Stanley Cup Final twice. Unfortunately for him, he came up empty on both occasions, as the Devils lost to the Kings in 2012 while his Sharks team lost to the Penguins in 2016. There’s no denying that he has learned a lesson or two from those long postseason runs. There’s no substitute for learning on the biggest stage and under the brightest lights. You can’t simulate that. But how much does that really matter in a head-to-head matchup between two franchises that have been waiting a long time to win a Stanley Cup?
Before taking over for Mike Yeo earlier this season, Berube had two seasons of NHL head coaching experience, as he coached the Flyers in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The 53-year-old was bounced in the first round of the playoffs in his first year and he failed to make the postseason in year two. He only won his first series as a head coach when the Blues knocked the Winnipeg Jets out of the first round last month.
And looking back on that series, Berube’s limited experience didn’t even come close to what Jets head coach Paul Maurice had under his belt. In fact, if you look at the eight coaches who made it to the second round of the playoffs in 2019, you’ll notice that five of them been behind an NHL bench for three full seasons or fewer. Boston’s Bruce Cassidy, Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour, Dallas’ Jim Montgomery, Colorado’s Jared Bednar, and Berube all fit in to that category. Cassidy is the leader in the clubhouse with 301 games of experience, but many of those came in the early 2000s when he was with the Washington Capitals.
Don’t get it twisted, there will always be room for experienced head coaches. The Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers both decided to hire veteran head coaches this year. Proven commodities will always have appeal in professional sports, but many teams are clearly willing to go with new blood.
So how much of an advantage does DeBoer have over Berube based on his experience? It’s hard to say. There’s no quantitative way to measure how many more goals the Sharks will score because of experience. Are the Sharks in the Western Conference Final because their coach is experienced? Probably not. But did experience help the Sharks remain calm when they were down by three goals in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights? Yeah, probably.
Let’s not sell the Blues’ young staff short, either. Berube and assistants Mike Van Ryn and Steve Ott don’t have as much coaching experience, but they also showed an ability to keep their team calm in a pressure situation. In Game 7 against Dallas, the Blues dominated the entire game. The limited Dallas to just one shot in the second period, but they still had to go two overtimes deep to beat them. But they remained composed and they kept pushing until Pat Maroon finally won them the game.
It’s possible that experience behind the bench will give the Sharks an edge in certain aspects of the game, but will it be the difference between them advancing and going home early? That seems very unlikely.
As usual, there’s a very good chance that the players on the ice will determine who wins and who loses. And that’s the way it should be!