Things are coming up Milhouse for the Vancouver Canucks so far this season. They are 8-2-1 through 11 games and are tied for third in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and J.T. Miller are in the top ten in NHL scoring and they have the fourth-ranked power play. Is this form sustainable? We’ll have to find out in the coming weeks and months. However, some credit goes to the impact of Rick Tocchet behind the bench.
Rick Tocchet‘s Awkward Arrival
Tocchet arrived in Vancouver in a very awkward and arduous situation last January. The Canucks had an abysmal 18-25-3 record and were on the verge of missing the playoffs for the eighth time in ten years. The club was also criticized heavily by fans and media around the league for the way they hired Tocchet and fired Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau was loved by Canucks fans and it was reported that he would be fired and Tocchet would be his replacement for weeks. As a result, Boudreau was coaching the Canucks even though his firing was inevitable and the last image of him behind the Canucks bench was him in tears as fans chanted: “Bruce, there it is.” It felt like the franchise was at an all-time low.
It’s fair to say the hiring of Tocchet wasn’t well received among Canucks fans. Not only because of the way Boudreau was treated but the fact Tocchet’s record as an NHL head coach with the Tampa Bay Lighting and Arizona Coyotes wasn’t great and he only made the playoffs once. That was in the 2020 COVID bubble. But Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and General Manager Patrik Allvin got their guy. They knew Tocchet from their days together with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tocchet was assistant coach there from 2014 to 2017 and helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Tocchet also brought a system that had “structure” which is something Rutherford really wanted the Canucks to have.
The Impact of Rick Tocchet as Canucks Head Coach
The Canucks did get better under Tocchet with a 20-12-4 record but that wasn’t enough for them to get into the playoffs. It felt like another version of the “Boudreau bump” from the season before, the team starts poorly, a new coach is brought in and the team does well but falls short of the playoffs.
Before this season, one of the key things for the Canucks was to have a good start. It is fair to say they have. Unlike last season the Canucks have…structure. New personnel and the continued growth of Hughes help, but under Tocchet, the Canucks don’t look as frail defensively and aren’t being bombarded in their own zone as much. They are forcing turnover quite often too.
To put that into perspective, the Canucks gave up 496 high-danger chances against last season at 5 on 5 before Tocchet arrived according to NaturalStatTrick. Since Tocchet arrived, they only have given up 436. Granted, that is only 60 less in almost exactly the same amount of total games, but there is improvement. The Canucks would often blow leads last season. This season, even when they had the lead, they not only added to it, but they managed to hold onto the lead by making it tough for the opposition to get scoring chances.
Tocchet and Accountability
Vancouver’s play on the ice is better under Tocchet. There are huge reasons why: he wants his team to really understand how to play his system, wants every player to work hard, and holds them accountable when needed. The latter part is one of the best things about Tocchet. He is honest in his press conference and isn’t afraid to call the team out. For instance, the Canucks had a horrible game in Philadelphia against the Flyers and he was brutally honest because he did not want to see a performance like that again. So far, he hasn’t.
Even when the Canucks won a game, Tocchet called them out. After the Halloween night 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators, Tocchet still criticized his team. Two nights later, they beat the San Jose Sharks 10-1 on the road. Yes, the Sharks look like the worst team in the NHL at the moment but it was clear Tocchet got his message across to the players and he strongly emphasized not to take the Sharks or any team lightly the morning before.
In the game against Nashville, Tocchet benched J.T. Miller for taking too many penalties for the final five minutes of the second period. In the third period, Miller scored a goal. It turns out, Tocchet’s message worked and it gave Miller the spark he needed.
Tocchet’s Tough Love
Tocchet is like that teacher in school who is very strict and gives a lot of homework and tests. That’s because he believes in his players and wants them to be at their best every game. When they aren’t, he makes them learn and they hopefully become better because he knows they can be better. The Canucks have been losing a lot for nearly a decade and it is refreshing to see that their coach isn’t just talk, but is a doer as well. More importantly, the players are buying into his message and system.
Main photo: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports