CRANBERRY — Vancouver was submerged in the Western Conference standings, hopelessly out of contention for a playoff berth, when Rick Tocchet replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach on Jan. 22, 2023.
The Canucks went on a 20-12-4 surge after Tocchet took over and will enter their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena with a three-game winning streak and one of the best records (27-11-3) in the NHL.
Tocchet, who won one Stanley Cup with the Penguins as a player and two more as an assistant coach, isn’t the only reason for the turnaround, but neither is it a coincidence that Vancouver’s trajectory was altered — quickly and emphatically — when he took over behind the bench.
“I don’t think anyone would have (foreseen) a jump like that,” Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. “But obviously, with some of the skill they have, game-breakers … Their depth has been really big for them. And then with (Tocchet) coming in with his staff, I’m sure they had a lot to be excited for. They’ve had a great first half.”
That reflects well on guys like J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes, among others, but also on the way Tocchet, whose playing career was testimony to a rare blend of toughness, tenacity and talent, has molded skilled individuals into a productive unit.
Which does not surprise the players who were around when he was on the staff here.
“Just a great guy, great communicator,” Crosby said. “Knows the game really well. He has his strengths as a player that he had but also, his philosophy as a coach. I think he finds a pretty good balance. … He’s played in a lot of different roles as a player, so he can relate to a lot of guys in different situations.”
Not surprisingly, Tocchet earned a thoroughly positive review from Mike Sullivan, the coach under whom he worked here.
“He’s a guy who loves to teach, loves to learn,” Sullivan said. “He’s open to ideas. He’s a great guy to talk hockey with. I really admire his humility, with the way he approaches the game every day, with his coaching staff, with the players. I think that goes a long way to creating an environment that’s optimal for winning. So it doesn’t surprise that Vancouver’s having the success that they have with him at the helm.”
Gauthier makes the cut
Forward Cutter Gauthier, Philadelphia’s first-round draft choice in 2022, generated a lot of headlines — and animosity — on the far side of the Commonwealth earlier this week, when the Flyers traded him to Anaheim after Gauthier made it known he had no interest in signing with them.
How Gauthier came to adopt that stance isn’t clear, but what seems certain is that the Ducks are getting someone who can be a major contributor for a long time after he decides to turn pro.
He certainly made a positive impression on Pittsburgh Penguins winger Drew O’Connor when they were teammates on Team USA at the world championships last spring.
“He’s got an unbelievable shot,” O’Connor said. “He scores from distance, which is hard to do. I think he had seven goals in that tournament. At the world championships, as a young kid, I think that’s really impressive. I think he’s going to have a great career.”
Gauthier probably wouldn’t have minded being teammates with O’Connor in the NHL, too, since it turns out the Penguins were his favorite team when he was younger.
Let’s all get along
Sullivan praised the way that Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang, two of the NHL’s better defensemen for a lot of years, have been able to coexist during their first season together on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When you have two players of that ilk — elite defensemen who play in key situations — they’re going to have to share the workload,” he said. “I think those guys have done a terrific job of making those sacrifices and sharing that workload. As I said before the season even started, if we can make this work, we have two elite defensemen, one of whom is going to be on the ice 50 out of the 60 minutes, more than likely, and that gives the Penguins a much better chance to win games.”