Like the Penguins, the Arizona Coyotes had their bye week last week. You would not have found first-year coach Rick Tocchet sneaking in some video work or drawing up plays. Nope and nope.
“I took a break. I’ll tell you that,” Tocchet said this week in a phone interview with Pittsburgh Hockey NOW. “I needed it. Trust me. I needed it big-time.”
Don’t get him wrong. Tocchet, 53, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins as a player in 1992 and two more as an assistant the past two seasons, isn’t about to give up on the young, struggling Coyotes. He certainly doesn’t regret leaving a high-end organization for what right now is the worst team in the league at 10-28-8.
Tocchet knows what the deficiencies and challenges are. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy or it’s going to be easy.
Arizona almost went 0-for-October, starting 0-10-1 and finishing the month 1-11-1, including five one-goal games. That got bloated to 1-16-2 before three straight wins in mid-November.
A Rough Start
“It’s been a tough battle,” Tocchet said. “Obviously, the momentum of the start, with a couple of guys getting hurt and (Antti Raanta) our No. 1 goalie getting hurt, we really got behind the 8-ball goaltender-wise. Those 15 games, we could have easily won six or seven of them. So I think we lost momentum and the confidence of some people because we lost those games.
“We have a lot of young guys, too, so we’re trying to build confidence. And it kind of just spiraled.”
Thus the welcome respite last week. The Coyotes are 0-1-2 since their break, including a 3-2 shootout loss to San Jose at home Tuesday.
You might think to come from an organization such as the Penguins, with its high-end stars and trail of Cups, would make Tocchet’s task with Arizona that much more frustrating. However, the contrast makes it plain what the Coyotes need in learning how to win.
“The one thing I’ve always respected, especially with the Penguins the last three years, is the players’ demeanors,” he said. “We’ve been in double overtimes. We’ve been in big Game 7s. I watch the way some of those Penguins players, how they were during those times, and it was like there wasn’t a lot of panic, and I really respect those guys for that.
“With the young guys here, you’re trying to put these kids through situations and (have them) not panic and do the right things under pressure. That’s hard to do. Anytime there’s pressure, we’ll see they’ll retreat and they’ll stop skating and they want to try to play safe.
“In Pittsburgh, they kept on moving forward. That was something that you can always teach kids: Keep going. Don’t change your style because it’s a tight game. You actually want to play in that same aggressive style.”
Working with the Young’uns
While the Coyotes have some character veterans such as former Penguins defenseman Alex Goligoski, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and center Brad Richardson, there is a strong core of young and lightly experienced players who are hungry to learn what Tocchet can teach them.
He likes to get on the ice before practice and work with some of them individually. And then he runs a hard workout.
“I try to be high-energy,” Tocchet said. “I’m a big practice guy. Practice with me is a big part of becoming good, becoming a great team. I’ve always felt, even when I played and the great teams I played with, I’ve always remembered those teams practiced hard. The Pittsburgh Penguins the last two or three years being there, they practiced hard.
“You practice hard against your teammates. I’m not saying kill them, but by practicing hard against your teammates, you’re going to make them better. That’s the one thing I always respected about Sidney Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Kris) Letang, those guys, is when they practice, they practice hard. It drives the level of play up so … I shouldn’t say it’s easier in a game, but you know what to expect in a game because you’re going at a high level in practice. It just correlates.
“I’m a big believer in that stuff.”
It hasn’t been all desert and no growth with Arizona.
“We’ve been doing some things with analytics, and our analytics are good. We’re very competitive. They work hard in practice. They do all the right things that way,” he said. “That’s encouraging. These young kids like (Christian) Dvorak and (Christian) Fischer and (leading scorer Clayton) Keller, they want to become great players, so they do work really hard. That’s something that I enjoy working with – a guy who works hard and wants to get better.”
Still, you can probably bet that the next break, the All-Star weekend later this month, will provide another welcome respite for Tocchet before he throws himself right into the thick of trying to steer the Coyotes toward being a better team.
“We’re still trying to get there, the mentality of how to win,” Tocchet said. “It’s hard to win. If it was so easy, everybody would win. There have been great teams that didn’t win for years before they get over the hump.”