SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When all of the Coyotes exit meetings had ended in mid-April, coach Rick Tocchet gave his staff a directive: Take a few weeks off to recharge and reflect on the season.
That doesn’t mean a hockey junkie like Tocchet stepped away from the game. He has watched the Stanley Cup playoffs on an almost nightly basis. The spectator’s view has filled him with a mixture of longing and motivation.
“I hope our guys are watching the playoffs because it’s a different level of commitment and it changes the way you go about things,” he said. “You watch a playoff game and the next morning when you have to go train at 7, for whatever reason you’re not as tired. It adds that extra bounce in your step.
“I miss being in that fire. I haven’t had an offseason in almost three years so I’m going to use this time to recharge, but I don’t want to be watching playoff hockey again.”
ArizonaSports.com caught up with the Coyotes coach for a wide-ranging Q&A on the past season and what steps he can take to make sure the Coyotes are standing in that playoff fire next spring.
With a few weeks of perspective, how do you reflect on last season?
Tocchet: “I think we’ve established the system we want to play. Everybody knows what I want in the D-zone, neutral zone, offensive zone, the structure of it. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to tweak it. It doesn’t mean I won’t add something this year but I think the base of it is there so now when guys come into camp there’s no hesitation. I thought last year these guys didn’t know when to, for instance, double up in a corner or when do I blow the zone? Things like that, so I think that’s going to help right off the bat.
“We as a team have to set standards. Our practice and work habits, especially over the last three months, improved drastically and because of that we started to have success. The bar has to be raised again. Our work habits have to go higher. Our practice habits have to go higher and that’s the foundation of what I have preached this summer. We might not have the luxury of other teams to go get high-priced free agents right now but what we can control is those things and I won’t let the bar slip on those things.”
Where does this team need improvement in terms of your style of play?
Tocchet: “I always preach wall work and I thought our wall work was very average. For a playoff team, we’d be average. We have to teach it better so we can get better at it, being that sticky player. I think with maturity you start to understand how important that is to your game.
“[Brendan Perlini] is a great example. Lots of talent, great speed, but he has to get better on the walls. He has to be a stickier player if he wants to be a high-level player. Those are the categories where he has to get better, but he’s not the only one. I’m a big practice guy and the first two months of the year we had no practice time and it drove me crazy. I guess any team could say this but there were two months later where we had a lot of practice time and I felt those guys started to play better because they had the reps, how to take stuff off the wall, body position in front of the net. Those are things that you’ve got to practice and practice and you have to put the players under pressure to get better with. We’re going to experiment with that more in our practice times next season.”
Did you learn anything about your own approach to coaching and building relationships with players?
Tocchet: “I told you this when the season ended, but I like to learn from my mistakes. I tried to correct 20 things when I got here. I forgot about why they brought me, the teaching, the individual stuff, the relationships. That’s what I’m good at. When I started to peel back the onion and started doing that, that’s when we started having success.
“There are things outside my control. I can’t control our practice rink or our travel. I was worrying about that stuff and not focusing on what I could control, like working with [Oliver] Ekman-Larsson or [Clayton] Keller or [Christian] Fischer. Players want that. If I’m preaching ‘control what you can control’ to the players then I should be doing the same thing as a coach.”
What might you change about your style of play next season?
Tocchet: “As a coaching staff, we’re going to dissect the season — defensive zone, neutral zone, offensive zone and special teams. How can we get better in these areas? Pittsburgh was the top power play during the season. What are they doing?
What do the top defensive teams like L.A., Nashville, what are they doing? Teams probably do 85 percent of things the same way but we might look at the 15 percent and tweak.
“When I was with Sidney Crosby, we’d sit and talk about this stuff. What about doing this? It gets my wheels going. I love this stuff. This is when I get engaged. You let them play hockey but our staff is getting really good at thinking outside the box. When teams are starting to do the same thing, what do you do different to find success? I can tell you every system within our division, I know San Jose does some different stuff they do than other teams that I like and we might use them.
“We also have to teach a little bit different this year. I’m talking like 5-10 percent. I’m not talking about blowing it up. I’m talking about how we teach players, video sessions and that kind of stuff. It’s going to be shorter, quicker, more individualized. I think when you have a younger team you have to coach different than with a veteran team. Those are the areas where we’re going to bounce around ideas.”
What do you view as this team’s greatest roster needs?
Tocchet: “I’d like another center, another top-five defenseman and a scoring wing, probably in that order. I’m not saying I’m going to get them all (laughs), but those are the biggest things I see. I talked to another coach the other day and said, ‘we’d like to get a really high-end center’ and he said, ‘join the club.’ Everybody wants one. You always want to strengthen your center position.
“With our situation, maybe a by-committee approach with everyone chipping in is the way we have to go at center. You just have to make sure there’s not a huge discrepancy between your No. 1 and No. 4. We’re a team that has to rely on four lines to score. We’re not a team that can ride two lines and have them carry it all the time. We can’t expect Clayton Keller to carry us. Look at Vegas. One night it’s their third line that wins them the game, the next it’s their fourth or first. It’s just finding the right guys.”
“You want to build through centers. When you have a good center lineup, they control the game for you. I’d like to get some grittier wings, too but I think maybe they’re here. I think a Perlini could be grittier. Max Domi could be grittier. Those players could become that guy.”
How does Marcus Kruger fit into that mix?
Tocchet: “The Chicago coaching staff loved him. I hear his hockey IQ is high and he’s a leader in the sense that he does the right things, practices hard. Since I’ve started, hockey IQ to me is bigger than I ever thought it was. When you add players with high hockey IQ, the chemistry comes quicker. He can probably help some young guys with that.”
Kevin Connauton and Luke Schenn are unrestricted free agents, but how do you view the top five defenseman you have in place with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jakob Chychrun?
Tocchet: “Our defense was the heartbeat of our team when healthy. If you look at our division, I think they’re as good as anybody. OEL’s last three months, that was star status, the way he played. Nik Hjalmarsson gave us some great games when he was healthy. Alex Goligoski, of all the guys, he gets my system the best and as the season went on he started to play better because he understands and he likes what I preach. Jason Demers is the wild card for me because I know he can have a better year. He did a nice job for us but I know he’s a better defenseman and I want to find that level.
“With Chychrun, I’m really excited for him. I really was devastated for him when he got injured. I remember talking to him and I said, ‘I’m going to whine here for five minutes that I can’t believe it happened and I’m upset but then you’ll never hear it from me again.’ But his knee is going to be stronger than ever and he has the right attitude and approach. Those are the kinds of guys I want on this team, selfless, self-starters with a commitment. If we get those three things we have a chance to be successful.”
Ekman-Larsson is eligible for a contract extension this summer. How has your relationship and view of him evolved?
Tocchet: “For me, he got stronger as the year went on. He struggled at the beginning of the year, but what I like about him is he didn’t just say, ‘I’m having a bad year,’ chalk it up to that and say, ‘screw this.’ He worked at his game and from Christmas on I thought he took his game to another level.
“I did a better job with him after December, too. I think our communication was better and our relationship got stronger. I take a little responsibility for his first two months because he didn’t know what to expect from me. His practice habits went from OK to outstanding the last two to three months. He knows that is something I have to have from him. When he hits the ice, the pace of practice has to be dictated by him and a few other guys like Hjalmarsson. The young guys are sponges. They watch and they’re impressionable. They have never been anywhere else at the NHL level to understand how things are done. Our practices were outstanding the last couple of months and I give credit to Oliver for that.”
How did you build your relationship with him?
Tocchet: “In December, we had a really frank 30 or 40 minute talk. I’m not a big meeting guy but we just talked about life and everything. I wanted him to have more of a voice in how we do things. What time should we have practice? Do you like the day off here? Should we travel at 2 PM? I want him to be proactive in those decisions. I want him to take responsibility and I think he understands that now that I want more from him.
“When my mom died he reached out to me and that meant a lot, too. I told him that losing his mom at such a young age was much tougher than what I went through but there was definitely a bond built through that.”
Do you plan to name a captain next season?
Tocchet: “It’s not that I don’t want to play my hand, but I’m a lot closer to picking a captain than I was last year. I needed a whole year to see the whole chemistry of the team and how things are here. Guys have to understand what I want from a captain. Captain is big, but sometimes it can be a little overrated. The leadership is not overrated. One of the biggest things for a coach is having a leadership group that can take care of things for you.
“When the San Francisco Giants won three World Series, they had a leadership group and when a young guy got off line they got to him before the coach. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are like that. In Pittsburgh, our leadership group was outstanding with Matt Cullen and Crosby and Kris Letang. That’s something I want to create here. I don’t want to handle the little stuff.”
Are there any young defenseman in the system that you could see making the leap to the NHL next season?
Tocchet: “In Tucson right now with the defense there, it’s a big jump for whoever that guy is. I would never say never but I think John will look outside for that.”
How about forwards?
Toc: “I really liked [Nick] Merkley. His skating has got to improve but I played the game and [assistant coach] Johnny Mac[Lean] did. Our skating wasn’t the greatest but it improved. He’s a sticky guy with a little bit of feistiness to him. He’s got really good hands. It’s unfortunate about his knee injury because I thought maybe next year, if he had a good camp, maybe he sticks for 20-25 games.
“The other guy is Lawson Crouse. He’s really taken his game to next level, inch by inch. It’s not like he’s climbed all the way up here but he’s improving and that’s another guy that can push for a job. For his work ethic, for his process, he’s going the right direction this year.”
How does Dylan Strome fit into your plans?
Tocchet: “I don’t know, but wherever he goes he produces. Does he have to get better defensively? Yes. Does he have to get quicker? Yes, but at the end of the night he’s got a goal or he’s got an assist. Throughout my career, I have seen those guys that just know how to produce, they know how to be in the right spots at the right time. He’s got that ability. You can teach a guy to play defense or get better here and there but it’s hard to teach offense to a guy that’s not an offensive player.
“To me, this is a huge year for Dylan off ice. He’s got to train like he has never trained before. There’s more there. He’s got to break that seal. It’s a question mark but he’s a great prospect for us. He’s a good kid and he wants to play here. I think there’s more there.”
What is your comfort level going into next season with Antti Raanta as your starting goalie?
Tocchet: “I sleep better at night because I know Antti’s attitude, work ethic, competitiveness and wanting to win are all there. He’s just done an outstanding job turning his whole demeanor around on being a No. 1 goalie. He’s in the gym, his body fat is down, he’s eating well and his numbers show it. His stats the last three months were some of the best in the league. Goalies can be leaders. They might not have a letter on their chest but they can be leaders and I think Antti is a leader.”
What does the rest of your summer look like?
Tocchet: “I talk to John [Chayka] daily. Our coaching staff met last week and we’ll meet again at the draft and the development camp. I want to visit a couple guys, players. I don’t want to show up in September and not have talked to a guy, whether it’s in person or on the phone. I think it’s important to have that relationship.
“We’ll have three meetings, we’ll meet at draft, a coaching symposium in August and we’ll meet at development camp and then training camp. I think in July is when I’ll take some time off, maybe take my son to Europe. I haven’t had some time off the last three years so it will be nice.”