New Jersey Devils right wing David Clarkson and his head coach Peter DeBoer combined for another win on Tuesday evening. They won together in junior, including a Memorial Cup championship with the 2002-03 Kitchener Rangers, and they're winning again with the Devils.
Sure there were other factors in the Devils 4-3 overtime victory over the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Goalie Jonas Gustavsson struggled in the first two periods for the Maple Leafs, who have lost six of their last seven, and again on Mark Fayne's 60-foot game-winner that was going wide.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the rink, 39-year-old Martin Brodeur continued his strong play for the surging Devils. New Jersey newcomer and ex-Leaf Alexei Ponikarovsky, scored a goa-ahead goal late in the second period, for his fourth goal and 10th point in the 13th game with his new team.
For DeBoer and the Devils, the win was the team's 35th of the season. The fourth-year NHL coach, in his first season with New Jersey, is on his way to surpassing his career-high 41-win campaign with the 2008-09 Florida Panthers. Clarkson has helped the cause with a career-high 23 goals and 33 points, including another timely goal to put the Devils up 2-0 in the first period against Toronto.
So has Clarkson been better for DeBoer's career or has DeBoer been better for Clarkson? DeBoer chuckled when he heard the question.
"I'm sure he'll tell you he's been good for me and saved my career and I'll probably tell you I saved his," DeBoer said. "So, I don't know how to answer that. We'll just call it a saw-off."
But DeBoer must see a different in the 27-year-old Clarkson from his junior days?
"He's more mature," the Devils coach said. "He's found his identity and role as a player. When I had him in Kitchener, he was trying to prove himself. He did a lot more fighting, a lot like he did early in his NHL career.
"I think he's established to everybody in the league what he is now and he's a valuable guy on the ice. There's only a handful of guys in the league - [Milan] Lucic, Clarkson, those type of players that can score the type of goals they score and are willing to do the dirty work, too."
It was nine years ago when DeBoer traded for Clarkson in an early-season deal between Kitchener and the Belleville Bulls. DeBoer cajoled Clarkson into becoming a robust and rugged forward who could score and trade punches with the toughest in the league (Clarkson fought Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday).
They won a junior title together and by the time the undrafted Clarkson, who was signed by the Devils as a free agent in 2005, left Kitchener he checked in with an impressive 33-goal season in only 51 games.
"Peter is pretty much the reason why I'm in the NHL," Clarkson said. "He put me in the sort of role I play now and that helped me find the way I needed to play.
"He's still hard on me when he I need it. But when you have someone in junior and you're familiar with, it can only help. To have a coach like that, who believes in you, is something you don't mind a bit.
"But all around, he's done a great job. Pretty much everybody in this room is a huge fan of his. That has been shown by the success we've had."
DeBoer stuck around Kitchener and coached a few more seasons before he was hired by the Florida Panthers. But after his impressive 41-win rookie season, the Panthers success in the standings declined. So the 43-year-old coach was out of work last summer until the Devils came calling.
DeBoer has steered the Devils to fourth place in the East after 59 games and they have gone 9-2-2 in their past 13 outings. The Devils can still check and grind out wins, but DeBoer has them playing a more aggressive, pressure-the-puck game.
"You learn every day," said DeBoer, when asked what he learned from three seasons in Florida. "This league is the toughest league in the world and there are no easy nights and if you're not learning and getting better, you've fallen behind. So, I learned on the job every day in Florida and, for sure, was better for that experience.
"If you've got all day I can talk about the learning experiences down there. It was a lot of things. Probably the main thing was handling NHL players. You need a little more patience, a little more communication than you really need with younger guys. But there's still a huge teaching element as this level that I think people underestimate."
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