Rick Tocchet‘s seven-year walk through the desert to become a head coach could be over. Figuratively.
For the second time in his coaching career, it appears Rick Tocchet will be behind the bench of the Arizona Coyotes. Multiple published reports Thursday indicated the Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach is in contract negotiations to become the Coyotes new head coach. Former Coyotes head coach Dave Tippet was pushed out last month after an eight-year tenure.
If Tocchet agrees to terms with Arizona, he will be inheriting a roster stacked with young talent, an organization strapped for cash and fighting for a new arena, and a team which failed to get adequate production from rising players.
This is Tocchet’s shot at redemption, but it won’t be easy.
Last season, the Coyotes were caught between a youth movement and a philosophical change. Majority owner Andrew Barroway shifted focus from more traditional player evaluation by firing respected hockey man Don Maloney to a numbers based process by hiring 27-year-old John Chayka as General Manager.
Things did not go well. The Coyotes finished with 70 points, the fourth-worst record in the NHL. Further, the organization earned criticism for returning 2015 first round choice, third overall, Dylan Strome to his junior team, the Erie Otters. Strome, 20, destroyed the OHL with 75 points in 35 games.
Tippet overcompensated for having nine players in their first or second full year by pulling back the reigns on his sophomores and rookies. Prominent players such as Max Domi and Anthony DuClair suffered precipitous drops in offensive production, while the Coyotes team allowed a ridiculous 260 goals against.
Tocchet, or any new head coach, will be tasked with grooming potential stars and jump starting the Coyotes offensive production. Their bench should include Strome and other potential high-end offensive players such as 2016 First Round pick Clayton Keller (7th overall) and young NHL players such as Domi and DuClair.
Tocchet will need to display the patience he showed while cajoling the enigmatic Phil Kessel for the Penguins.
History, Melrose and Meddling Owners
During Tocchet’s first tenure in Arizona, he was an assistant to head coach and part owner, Wayne Gretzky. However, in 2006, Tocchet was charged and plead guilty in New Jersey to financing a gambling ring. He served two years probation and returned to the Coyotes staff in 2008.
In November 2008, Tocchet received his first head coaching job, as boss of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He took over after the failed Barry Melrose experiment, which lasted just 16 games. Tocchet was able to stabilize a dreadful situation, which included owners meddling in game preparation, feuding owners, and a spotty roster hamstrung by big contracts.
The intense coach failed to make the playoffs in either season and new owners relieved him of his duties, after the 2009-10 season.
The stink of that job and past legal trouble clung to him. Tocchet did not return to coaching until 2014. The Penguins, to which he has many personal ties, hired him as an assistant coach. In fact, the Penguins hired Tocchet before the team hired a head coach. It was an odd arrangement. The Penguins effectively made accepting Tocchet a condition of hire.
Tocchet’s early Pittsburgh tenure was uneven and at times tense. Before Tocchet was named assistant coach, he openly campaigned for the head job which went to Mike Johnston. Tocchet ran the Penguins power play and handled the forwards.
There was long whispered frustration between Johnston and Tocchet. Leaks of conflicting opinions were widespread.
Tocchet also survived the coaching staff purge in 2015. Johnston and assistant Gary Agnew were canned, but Tocchet remained as Mike Sullivan took over. However, Sullivan did take over the Penguins struggling power play, which limited Tocchet’s duties.
Rick Tocchet Evolution
Tocchet was a blood-and-guts player. Physical, intense and determined. His coaching style reflected those traits, too. I was a young reporter in 2003 when I watched then-Avalanche assistant coach Tocchet spend nearly two hours on the ice working out with Joe Sakic. Sakic was coming back from an injury and Tocchet skated him as hard as any human being could. My legs hurt just watching.
Tocchet’s 2010 Lightning team was talented at the top, but full of big-fisted guys and pluggers like Zenon Konopka. Konopka racked up 265 penalty minutes. The coach also often featured Steve Downie in the top 6 forwards. Tocchet relied far too much on “grit”.
Things changed under Sullivan. Change crept into Tocchet’s approach, too. Gone were the leaked “differences” and an overemphasis on physical play. They were replaced with praise from players and…winning. Two Stanley Cups generally speak well of a coach. Cups are also the ultimate positive reinforcement.
Tocchet also became the coaching staff liaison to Phil Kessel. Tocchet talked through expectations and pushed Kessel. The relationship came to light as the pair had a long chat on the ice during the morning skate prior to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Word is Tocchet was frustrated with Kessel, but he kept pushing without losing the player.
Good Luck, He’ll Need It
Like his first head coach gig, Tocchet is poised to take over an organization in trouble. The Coyotes are desperately seeking a new arena after failing to draw consistent or adequate crowds in their Glendale barn. Barroway recently bought out all partners to become the sole owner.
And to salt their own wounds, last month, Chayka took stalwart and captain Shane Doan to lunch…to deliver the news Doan would not be back.
The Coyotes next head coach will inherit a team with loads of offensive potential. With a lot of coaching and a little luck, the situation might bear good results. The chance to win with such talent is an attractive option for a daring soul.
But if the GM calls and wants to go to lunch, say you brought leftovers from home.