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A year after hiring, Pete DeBoer’s stamp is on Golden Knights

It might not seem like it, since Pete DeBoer has been behind the bench for 22 regular-season games.

When the Golden Knights hit the ice Thursday for their season opener against Anaheim, it will be almost one year to the day that DeBoer was hired as coach.

The move continues to stir debate, and it’s clear nearly 365 days later that a portion of the fan base still hasn’t gotten over the shock of Gerard Gallant’s sudden dismissal. Ultimately, the decision will be judged on whether DeBoer can deliver the Stanley Cup.

But as he prepares for his first full season as coach, there’s no doubt DeBoer has put his stamp on the Knights.

“He’s implemented a lot of good things into our game,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “I think positionally with our systems, we played good hockey in the bubble. I think just getting a little more comfortable with him around the rink is going to be good for everyone. He’s a great coach, and I think he’s going to do a good job.”

The Knights were mired in a four-game losing streak, tied for the longest in team history, and out of a playoff spot at 24-19-6 when Gallant was fired Jan. 15, 2020.

DeBoer’s hiring on the same day added a layer of intrigue because he had faced the Knights as coach of the San Jose Sharks in heated playoff series the previous two seasons. Before Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals in 2019, Gallant called DeBoer a “clown” during a news conference.

The coaching change had the desired effect, as the Knights went 15-5-2 under DeBoer. They won 11 of their final 13 games to capture the Pacific Division title before the season was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the playoffs, the Knights earned the top seed in the Western Conference by sweeping through the round robin and reached the conference final before losing to Dallas in five games.

“I think when he came in, it was awkward at first. I don’t think many guys had been through a coaching change,” right wing Mark Stone said. “Anytime you come in, it’s hard to cement something into a group quickly. … It’ll be good to kind of just get to Jan. 14 feeling comfortable, and I think everyone is comfortable right now.”

DeBoer placed his fingerprints on the Knights’ systems, most notably during short-handed situations, as penalty killers were more aggressive in the zone and challenged entries at the blue line rather than pressuring the puck high up the ice.

He’s also emphasized defensemen jumping into the play to create odd-man rushes, which boosted a previously stagnant offense that was 16th in the league in goals per game (3.05) at the time of his hiring.

During the postseason, DeBoer made the difficult decision to name Robin Lehner the No. 1 goaltender over Marc-Andre Fleury, a problem Gallant never faced.

On defense, DeBoer tightened up coverage and altered how the Knights broke out of their own zone.

“I think right now we’re coming out of our defensive zone a lot easier,” right wing Ryan Reaves said. “You look at the playoffs last year, we didn’t give up a ton of shots. We obviously had to clean some up. Some of the shots we were giving up were grade A, and they would cost us. But for the most part, I think our defensive zone is much better than it was before.”

DeBoer used this training camp to fine-tune the Knights’ systems and must decide how to divide playing time between Lehner and Fleury.

But for all the subtle differences that have his name on them, DeBoer hasn’t messed with the foundation that was laid before his arrival.

“We’ve tweaked a few different systems, but I think the identity of this team hasn’t changed,” right wing Reilly Smith said. “I think that’s given us success over the last three or four years. We want that to continue, but it all starts with hard work still.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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