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DeBoer makes his return to Florida

Nov 20, 2011, 8:07 PM EST

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Peter DeBoer AP

Last season, the Florida Panthers were the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Right behind them (or ahead of them, depending on your point of view), was the New Jersey Devils that were in the midst of their worst season in years. The link between the two teams goes much further than futility though—Devils head coach had an up-close-and-personal look at the Panthers last season. After all, he was their head coach.

Monday night’s game is more than just a regular game between two improving teams. For DeBoer, it’ll mark the first time he’s returned to South Beach since he was fired last April. He compares his return to that of a traded player.

“It’s a little strange coming back,” DeBoer said. “You kind of pour three years of your life into a job. To walk in through the visitors’ entrance I’m sure you go through the same emotions as a traded player. It’s a little strange but I’m excited. I feel good about where I’m at and I’m sure they feel good about where they’re at.”

Florida’s move to fire DeBoer has worked out nicely for both teams. The Panthers have been competing with the Capitals for the Southeast Division lead—not bad for a team that has had the 3rd pick in the last two drafts. New coach Kevin Dineen has the new Panthers building chemistry faster than anyone could have reasonably predicted and has fans dreaming of the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

In New Jersey, DeBoer has brought some stability to the coaching position that has more changes than most people’s fantasy teams. All fans have to do is think back 12 months ago to know how badly things can go for a new coach in New Jersey. John MacLean showed what NOT to do; now Pete DeBoer is showing how successful a Devils coach can be in his first few months. He must have taken a few notes from Jacques Lemaire.

Monday night’s game should be fun to watch—because DeBoer has already said that the game means more to him. It’s refreshing to hear a coach say something other than, “it’s just another game.” He wants to win because he wants to beat his old team. He wants to win because he wants to stay on a roll.

There’s a shocker: a coach just wants to win.

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