Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka cited two critical qualities he wanted in the franchise’s next coach: excellent communication skills to shepherd the team’s young core to NHL adulthood, and a style of play that suited that core’s skill and speed.
Chayka’s choice, erstwhile Pittsburgh assistant Rick Tocchet, has a reputation for both.
“He was the best candidate by a wide margin,” Chayka said. “Even when I interacted with him myself or my staff, it’s clear he’s one of the best communicators I’ve come across, not only in hockey but probably professionally as well.
“He wants to play with the puck. He wants to play fast. He wants to play aggressive. He wants to dictate time and space. We had a lot of coaches coming through and they all said something similar. He had a real plan of how to do it. He had concrete examples of what that means based off his time in Pittsburgh and then some more ideas on maybe what he’s looking to do moving forward.”
Tocchet laid out those plans in what he said was a four- to five-hour interview that included a video presentation of how he’d like to play.
“A lot of pressure on the opponent. A lot of D joining the rush,” he said. “There’s different ways to play fast. I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands. We have some creative young players here, so I want them to be creative. I want them not to think too much. I want them to play.”
Former coach Dave Tippett was criticized (often unfairly) for the tight reins he supposedly placed on the team’s young players, but Tippett and his staff were trying to teach the players defensive responsibility and all the nuances of the game they didn’t learn in juniors, college, the USHL or the European elite leagues. He wanted to make them complete players, both to lengthen their careers and to increase the odds of team success.
With center Derek Stepan in the fold now, and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson around to allow Oliver Ekman-Larsson to play more with the puck, the Coyotes should have a more creative look. As playmakers such as Max Domi, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun mature, that creativity will become more pronounced, but Tocchet, like Tippett, knows there must be a balance.
“You have to give players freedom — especially in today’s NHL — to play, but I’m not going to sell the farm,” he said. “It’s not going to be 3-on-1s all night. You have to be calculated.”
In striking that balance, Tocchett will rely on the communications skills that earned him the reputation as the Phil Kessel whisperer, but were also critical in reaching the Penguins’ young players.
“He can motivate and he can be aggressive in his approach, but he can also be that big brother kind of approach with our young players and I think that’s going to be helpful moving forward,” Chayka said. “Pittsburgh’s got a lot of talented players, but they also have an environment that harbors winning, so he’s been a big part of that, working with players — not only the Sidney Crosbys, Evgeni Malkins and Phil Kessels, but also they don’t win that Stanley Cup without the [Jake] Guentzels and [Bryan] Rusts and [Conor] Shearys and [Matt] Murray. Toch has been a big part of that.
“He’s a got a real leadership presence. He walks in a room and he owns the room. He demands the highest degree of excellence. At the same time, I think he has created a niche for himself as being a kind of communicator, being someone the players can rely on and talk to not only about hockey, but outside of hockey.”
Former teammates say Tocchet has always possessed those qualities.
“He’s a guy that you naturally follow because he has this presence about him, this body language, and he played the game at a high level,” former Coyote Daniel Briere said. “He knows when it’s time to be serious and you have no choice but to follow him when he is, but you can’t be on with your game face 24/7. He knows when it’s time to cut loose, so he’s also a blast to be around.”
Tocchet recognizes the shift in his relationship with his players that being a head coach necessitates.
“I want to stay out of their way,” he said. “It’s their room, it’s their team. I’m there to help them. I don’t want to be the guy that’s in the room all the time. I want these guys to be self-starters, too. You can’t just pound hockey into guys’ heads. Sometimes less is more.”
At the same time, he insists he won’t change his style.
“I don’t want to change as a person,” he said. “I don’t think that because you carry a title ‘head coach’ that all of a sudden you have to be distanced from your player. My style is: this is a partnership. I love working with young guys. You can have a big impact on their careers and that’s something I take very seriously.”
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