Coyotes’ Tocchet taking a trip down coaching memory lane

Dec 15, 2017, 2:35 PM
Tocchet spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a stint that...
Tocchet spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a stint that included consecutive Stanley Cup championships. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A 10-day stretch in late December feels like a timeline of Rick Tocchet’s NHL coaching odyssey.

On Thursday, he faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, with whom he landed his first head-coaching gig in 2008.

On Saturday, he’ll face the Pittsburgh Penguins, with whom he won two Stanley Cups as an assistant the last three seasons.

A week from Saturday, he’ll face the Colorado Avalanche, with whom he got his first assistant coaching job in 2002. The only other organization for which Tocchet has worked is the one he is guiding right now.

“It is a little weird,” the Coyotes coach said.

That coaching resume has afforded him some great opportunities.

“I’ve gotten a chance to coach some of the greatest players in this game,” said Tocchet, who worked with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Sidney Cosby and Evgeni Malkin, among others. “I’m very lucky and blessed.”

Tocchet said he learned as much from those players as they did from him, but the guy from whom he culled his greatest coaching lesson is the guy he’ll face on Saturday: Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.

When Tocchet was in Tampa, he was still feeling his way through the head coaching process. He had never been there before so he listened intently to anyone who offered advice.

“I shouldn’t say I was wishy-washy, but I was influenced by a lot of people,” he said. “Maybe it was confidence, maybe you’re trying to please everybody. I don’t know, but I’m more decisive now and I learned that from Mike Sullivan.”

When Sullivan took over the Penguins for fired coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015, Pittsburgh lost its next four games by a combined score of 15-4. Tocchet never saw Sullivan waver in his approach, or in the style he wanted Pittsburgh to employ.

“It impressed me the way, under those losses, that he stayed pretty decisive,” Tocchet said. “Some other coaches might have changed things but he was pretty decisive on the way we wanted to play and I think the players saw that and that really helped us turn things around.”

With the Coyotes sporting the NHL’s worst record at 7-22-5, Tocchet is learning heavily on that example now.

“I’m much more decisive,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I ask for advice. I have people in my inner circle that I trust and I have people in my hockey circle that I trust but when it comes down to it, I’m much more decisive.

“Even though the wins and losses have been tough, I’m not going to change the way we’re going to play. Maybe six, seven years ago, I might have said, ‘oh, we’ve got to change a few things’ but I’m not changing the meat of the concept.”

To make sure his players are on board, Tocchet is employing the other great lesson he took from his Pittsburgh years — the one that general manager John Chayka highlighted when he hired Tocchet last summer.

“I’m probably communicating a little bit better,” he said. “Head coaching gets overwhelming. You’ve got to talk to media, you talk more with management, there are a lot of things you have your hat in and then sometimes you forget about the players.

“There have been stretches this season where I wasn’t communicating with the players because I was overloading on other stuff. As a head coach, you have to have time to talk to players, whether it’s two minutes or 20 minutes. You can’t go long stretches without talking to a player. You’ve got to go to every player and make sure they know where they stand.”

“It’s easier as an assistant because you have more time, a little more freedom, but I always said as an assistant that I didn’t want to change and I don’t think I have. There may be duties that change but I’ve tried to stay the same person.”

Tocchet knows Coyotes fans are restless because a promising offseason hasn’t produced regular-season results. He knows his approach is coming under increased scrutiny as the losses pile up.

“The bottom line is the head coach has to make the decisions; the responsibility lies on us and I accept that,” he said. “But I’m not going to change who I am or how we do things. I might tweak our system, but I believe in the system we’re playing and I believe if you stick with it you’ll be successful.”

Penguins at Coyotes

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Gila River Arena

TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus

Radio: ESPN 620 AM

Records: Coyotes — 7-22-5. Penguins — 16-14-3.

Injury report: Coyotes — D Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper body) and F Zac Rinaldo (illness) are day to day. Penguins — D Justin Schultz (lower body) is week to week. F Tom Kuhnhackl (upper body) is day to day.

Penguins scouting report: The two-time defending Stanley Cup champs have lost three in a row and are currently out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference, leading GM Jim Rutherford to go public with the revelation that he isn’t ruling out a “major trade.” … F Phil Kessel leads Pittsburgh with 15 goals and 37 points. … The Penguins are allowing 3.18 goals per game (23rd in the NHL) but have the league’s fourth-best power play at 25.61 percent.

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