Pete DeBoer set to return to Vegas for first time since dismissal

A look at DeBoer’s tenure with the Golden Knights and strong start in Dallas.

The Vegas Golden Knights will welcome back a familiar face when they host the Dallas Stars on Monday afternoon.

It will be the first time Pete DeBoer returns to T-Mobile Arena since being fired last May.

He spent parts of three seasons behind the Vegas bench, where he posted a record of 98-50-12 as well as a 22-17 record in the postseason.

His tenure featured plenty of shock and awe from the very beginning until the very end.

It started with the Golden Knights’ controversial and baffling decision to fire Gerard Gallant, who went 118-75-20 in his time with Vegas. The dismissal came at the tail end of a four-game losing skid, though the Golden Knights had won the previous four and were only three points out of first place in the division at the time.

A year earlier, Gallant guided an unassuming Golden Knights roster to the best inaugural campaign of a major sports team in the expansion era, breaking almost every record along the way. The Golden Knights shattered all expectations by winning the Pacific Division with 109 points and storming all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Washington Capitals in five games.

Gallant was the recipient of the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year and followed it up with the organization’s second straight playoff berth. That postseason ended with Vegas blowing a 3-1 lead to San Jose and losing in an infamous Game 7 that led to NHL rule changes and a rare apology from the league.

The man behind the opposing bench was Vegas’ nemesis, a man whom Gallant once famously referred to as a “clown” in the heated rivalry.

That man was fired by the Sharks the following season one month before the Golden Knights parted ways with Gallant.

In a shocking twist, that man then replaced Gallant.

That man, of course, was Pete DeBoer.

DeBoer’s tenure in Vegas ran from Jan. 15, 2020 to May 16, 2022.

The Golden Knights were in the midst of an extensive road trip at the time of the coaching change, so DeBoer didn’t appear before the home crowd for more than three weeks. However, that separation — as well as Vegas’ 4-2-1 record during that time — helped ease the transition.

He went 15-5-2 in his first season behind the Vegas bench and followed that up with a 40-14-2 record in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season before going 43-31-8 in 2021-22. As a result, he finished his time in Vegas with a .650 points percentage, which exceeds Gallant’s (.601), albeit in 53 fewer games.

The Golden Knights made it to the third round of the playoffs in his first two seasons, falling to Dallas in five games in 2020 and losing to Montreal in six in 2021. Both elimination games were 3-2 losses decided in overtime.

However, DeBoer was behind the bench last year when the Golden Knights failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in franchise history, which ultimately led to his firing.

The team faced a plethora of injuries that derailed a once-promising campaign, and DeBoer frequently was forced to play with fewer than 18 skaters due to extreme salary cap complications.

That being said, Vegas’ collapse spanned many months, and there were other ongoing concerns with the team’s performance (i.e., the power play) that went uncorrected.

That’s not to say DeBoer should be the lone scapegoat for what went wrong; he had very little roster flexibility due to the ludicrous salary-cap constraints and faced an absurd amount of injuries to key players.

But Vegas had many chances to save the season down the stretch, and DeBoer was unable to make it happen.

Vegas’ offense dried up at the end of the year in all three of DeBoer’s seasons in Vegas, the power play wildly underperformed for well over a year and his systems often failed to get the most out of certain players.

There were off-ice controversies as well, which became a common theme in DeBoer’s time in Sin City.

DeBoer’s comments following the acquisition of Robin Lehner and his subsequent backpedaling on the matter precipitated a cloud of goalie controversy that inspired one of the more memorable social media posts in hockey history.

The infamous Allan Walsh tweet about DeBoer’s treatment of Marc-Andre Fleury featured a bloody “DeBoer” sword stabbing Fleury in the back. The image from the tweet — posted by Walsh (Fleury’s agent) on Aug. 22, 2020 but later taken down at Fleury’s request — can be seen in the screenshot below and came in response to Fleury’s workload in the bubble.

Surprisingly, both goalies returned for the following season and ended up teaming up for the William M. Jennings Trophy after giving up the fewest goals (124) in the NHL. Fleury won the Vezina Trophy but was later dumped to Chicago without being notified before the news broke (though that’s not on DeBoer).

Lehner’s first season as Vegas’ starting netminder featured plenty of ups and downs. He took to Twitter frequently, including to challenge reports about his injuries. But it was the end-of-season debacle between DeBoer and Lehner that was particularly problematic.

It was the second time in DeBoer’s three years as bench boss that a season ended in a goalie-controversy saga, and it was a source of confusion, speculation and distraction in the midst of Vegas’ desperate — and ultimately unsuccessful — final push to make the playoffs.

It involved the organization’s first-ever press release regarding the status of a player’s availability for practice.

In its entirety, the press release stated: “Robin Lehner will not be on the ice today for practice as he takes an additional maintenance day. We are hopeful that he will be available for Sunday night’s game.”

This came one day after DeBoer flat-out denied reports that Lehner was set to undergo season-ending surgery; at the time, DeBoer said Lehner’s absence was due to a maintenance day and that he expected Lehner to be available for Vegas’ upcoming game.

Despite already deciding to undergo season-ending surgery, Lehner served as the backup goalie in that game, a 5-4 shootout loss to San Jose. Vegas held a 4-2 lead in the third period but gave up two goals in the final 2:06 of regulation and proceeded to fail to score a single goal in the shootout.

Vegas’ playoff push came to a screeching halt with three consecutive shootout losses, starting with the game against the Sharks; Vegas finished three points behind the Nashville Predators for the second wildcard seed.

But the two games prior to the San Jose shootout loss, which ended up being Lehner’s final two appearances of the season, were also notable. His performance in a must-win game against New Jersey featured two very soft goals and was criticized by DeBoer.

In the following game, Lehner got the start but was pulled after the first period after stopping 12 of 13 shots against Washington.

DeBoer’s comments after the game, a 4-3 overtime win, were interesting for several reasons, especially considering he said Lehner was “healthy” and “fresh.”

Just two days later, ESPN and The Athletic reported on Lehner’s alleged season-ending surgery, which DeBoer denied.

Multiple sources later reported that Lehner informed Vegas of the surgery on Thursday, April 21, the day after the Washington game and one day before reports about the surgery initially surfaced.

The team announced Lehner’s season was over the day after losing to San Jose.

Needless to say, it was a fiasco perhaps only overshadowed by Vegas’ disastrous collapse.

Regardless of what actually happened in those final days of the season, it was evident that there was a disconnect somewhere in the organization, but DeBoer certainly was front-and-center.

Following the season, there were concerns about possible friction between DeBoer and Lehner, though that was never tested since DeBoer was let go.

Say what you will about how things unfolded during the Fleury and Lehner situations, but there was no goalie controversy prior to DeBoer’s arrival and there has been no goalie controversy since his dismissal. Even if he wasn’t directly responsible for the trade that landed Lehner, his shifting narrative and overall handling of the timeshare played a major role in the controversy.

Of course, there were plenty of other factors that may or may not have been in DeBoer’s control. However, it’s difficult to ignore that the team was affected by all the drama and noise during two important seasons during the Golden Knights’ never-guaranteed window.

As for last season, the widespread injuries to players like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez and others were a significant factor in the team’s downfall.

Now, Bruce Cassidy (the third coach in franchise history) is beginning to experience a similar — albeit less severe — rash of injuries, and the Golden Knights are faltering after the best start in six seasons.

However, Cassidy has made many improvements to Vegas’ game and still has 38 games remaining. Not to mention the fact that he has restored a relatively drama-free environment for the club.

The Golden Knights have been at or near the top of the Pacific Division for most of the season and currently have the second-most points in the Western Conference behind Winnipeg (59).

Cassidy will coach the Pacific Division team in this year’s All-Star Game as a result of Vegas’ standing through the selection cutoff date of Jan. 11.

But Monday’s matchup between Vegas and Dallas will feature two of four 2023 All-Star Game coaches, as DeBoer is set to represent the Central Division after getting off to a strong start in his new gig.

The Stars currently trail Vegas by just one point (57) and sit in third place in the Western Conference.

DeBoer has helped the Stars improve in several key areas, including on special teams, where Dallas ranks fifth on both the power play (27.5 percent) and penalty kill (82.6 percent); those numbers are improved from 22.4 percent and 79.0 percent last year, respectively.

Also, Dallas is averaging more goals (3.43, up from 2.84) and giving up fewer goals (2.66, down from 2.98) per game.

It doesn’t hurt that forward Jason Robertson is fourth in the NHL scoring race with 60 points in 44 games, trailing only Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nikita Kucherov. Robertson is on pace for well over 100 points after recording 79 last season.

Also, netminder Jake Oettinger is fifth in the NHL in wins (19) and save percentage (.924) and fourth in goals-against average (2.28) among goalies with at least 10 starts.

But with just under half a season remaining, there is still a lot that can change for both clubs and both coaches in their first year with their respective clubs.

The Golden Knights first have to make the playoffs.

So do the Stars.

Assuming that happens, it would be quite something for Vegas to come face to face with “that man” in the playoffs for a third time.

But the ultimate narrative would see the winner of Vegas-Dallas meeting Gallant and the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.

Stranger things have happened.