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Will Ilya Kovalchuk learn to ‘trust’ Peter DeBoer?

Oct 9, 2011, 1:18 AM EDT

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Ilya Kovalchuk, Adam Oates AP

This might be a case of oversimplification, but it seemed like a light switch went on when the New Jersey Devils changed coaches last season. The team went from cellar dwellers to a squad on a scary hot streak toward playoff relevance when John MacLean made way for Jacques Lemaire, even if they still fell short of the postseason.

The most dramatic improvement could be seen in the play of Ilya Kovalchuk. The $100 million winger scored 23 of his 31 goals and 42 of his 60 points once Lemaire took over after clearly clashing with MacLean, who even benched him for a game. (That decision might have been the hockey version of “When keeping it real goes wrong.”)

Naturally, the unavoidable question for new Devils coach Peter DeBoer is: can he reach Kovalchuk? It’s way, way too early to jump to any conclusions, but the first game didn’t go too well. The Philadelphia Flyers stomped the Devils 3-0 and Kovalchuk was on the ice for all three goals, giving him an ugly -3 rating.

As Kovalchuk told Dave D’Alessandro of the Newark Star-Ledger before the game, it might all come down to trust.

“When the coach trusts you, it changes everything. With Jacques, he had a style where you wanted to play hard for the guy. So that’s what happened. Jacques was one of those guys who would always say the right things at the right time, and he’d put every guy in this room in the right position to be the most successful. That’s why we were playing so well.”

DeBoer has a tough assignment ahead of him: get the most out of a top-heavy group of players who are used to success. DeBoer wasn’t working with much in his stint with the Florida Panthers, but hopefully he knows what to say and do with Kovalchuk and the Devils.

If he doesn’t, it might just cost him his job and keep the Devils out of the playoffs for a second season in a row.

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