NEW YORK, N.Y. – In one of the dozen individual conversations Rick Tocchet initiated during Tuesday’s practice under the stage lights at Madison Square Garden, the Vancouver Canucks’ new head coach called Elias Pettersson to a spot near the blueline.
It was a position on the ice similar to the place where Pettersson was torched Monday night by Jack Hughes, the lightning bolt who scored on a first-period breakaway after bursting untouched down left wing in the New Jersey Devils’ 5-4 win across the Hudson River.
Tocchet was talking and pointing. Then so was Pettersson.
Eventually, the inquisition was joined by Andrei Kuzmenko, Pettersson’s linemate. One of them should have had back-side defensive coverage through the neutral zone when Canuck defencemen Quinn Hughes and Ethan Bear closed gaps on the other two New Jersey forwards.
“On the bench, I’d said ‘Petey,’ and whatever. . . and he said ‘yeah,’” Tocchet explained later of culpability on the play. “But after I looked at it (on video), there was a different way to play it. Kuzmenko should have had him. I’m okay to say, ‘Hey, man, I made the wrong read there.’ I told Petey. I’ve been wrong before. It’s okay to admit it. It’s okay to be vulnerable as a coach; I don’t know everything. Petey understands. Actually, he opened up about it. It’s healthy. It’s got to be healthy.”
Tocchet has coached four games since replacing Bruce Boudreau on Jan. 22, but Tuesday was just his third full practice. Tocchet’s stamp, however, is already evident.
After captain Bo Horvat was traded by general manager Patrik Allvin during last week’s All-Star break, Tocchet empowered Pettersson, 24, and Quinn Hughes, 23, as leaders by making them alternate captains.
Hughes is actually playing a couple of minutes a game less for Tocchet than he did under Boudreau, as is defenceman Tyler Myers and J.T. Miller, another of the alternate captains.
Forward Dakota Joshua and defencemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ethan Bear are playing a couple of minutes more.
Tocchet seems to have settled on Collin Delia as a preferred starter over Spencer Martin while the Canucks wait for the return of injured goalie Thatcher Demko, who worked with goaltending coach Ian Clark before Tuesday’s practice and then hung around for the first couple of drills with the main group before leaving the ice. Demko hasn’t played since Dec. 1.
Former New York Islander Anthony Beauvillier, part of the return on Horvat, continued to skate with Pettersson on the top line, and Tocchet promoted Vasily Podkolzin to the second line with Miller, one game into Podkolzin’s return from a two-month assignment in the American Hockey League.
But the biggest differences so far may be in Tocchet’s expectations and the accountability that go with them. That was his best player he had been ready to reprimand on Tuesday.
“If I earn their trust, I think they’ll accept (criticism),” Tocchet, 58, said. “If they don’t trust me, it’s going to take longer. I don’t like embarrassing players. But I do think that you have to set a standard and if one of your players isn’t hitting it, you’ve got to remind them.”
And this goes for everyone?
“A million per cent,” he said. “I’m a practice guy. I’ve noticed so far these guys want to practise hard, but they’re not there. Like, we had a good effort last night, so we started off practice a little bit sluggish today. That’s a mindset. If you look at the great players, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, those guys are the hardest-working practice guys. That’s why Petey and Hughes and Miller, they have to be my best practice guys. And then the younger guys have got to follow.
“A great coach has great leadership (among players). A great coach that has no leadership, it’s not a great coach. I don’t care who you are. Whether you’re Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake, you’ve got to have great leadership.”
This is partly why Tocchet moved so quickly to elevate Hughes and Pettersson to more overt leadership positions.
“I asked our leadership group the other day: ‘What does the Canuck logo mean to you right now? What should it mean? And what are three things that you can offer right to make the Canuck logo be what you want? Bring that every day.’”
After previous head-coaching postings in Tampa (2008-10) and Arizona (2017-21), where his jobs were complicated immensely by tumultuous ownership changes and franchise upheaval, Tocchet says he should be a better coach now in Vancouver.
He said he really learned to coach during a three-year stint as an assistant in Pittsburgh (2014-17), where the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups under Mike Sullivan and where Tocchet got to know Allvin and Jim Rutherford, who joined the Canucks 14 months ago and has rebuilt Vancouver’s hockey-operations department.
“I’m used to situations where there’s a lot of noise,” Tocchet said diplomatically. “But I became more decisive being in those situations. Before, I probably let people influence my decision making. Don’t get me wrong, I still use my roundtable (of assistant coaches) big time, but I’m more decisive in my decisions.”
Tocchet said he turned down two invitations to pursue head-coaching positions while he spent last season working as a television analyst for TNT in the U.S. He said Tuesday he has no buyer’s remorse about joining the Canucks, reiterating that he loves the city and its passionate fan base and the lineup building blocks he inherited: Pettersson, Hughes, Miller and Demko.
But he said even his son Trevor, a lacrosse player at college who now works for a startup in Seattle, wondered about his father’s wisdom in taking the Vancouver job when Rick Tocchet’s introduction during a Jan. 24 home game against Chicago was met with a mixture of jeers and polite applause.
“My son goes: ‘Dad, why are they booing you? What did you do wrong?’” Tocchet recalled with a smile. “But I understand. They’re passionate. I get it. I didn’t take it personally. Me, Footy (new assistant coach Adam Foote) and my son went for dinner a couple of nights out, and five, six, seven people came up and said: ‘Hey, Toc, we’re with you.’ It’s nice to hear that, too.
“Pressure is a privilege. When pressure really doesn’t matter, that kind of sucks. Hopefully, you earn the fans’ trust with the way the team plays and their identity. That’s the way I look at it.”