It looks like Rick Tocchet is about to become the next head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. This marks another defection for the Penguins, who have lost an assistant GM in Jason Botterill to a head GM job in Buffalo - taking Randy Sexton with him and scout Scott Bell to University of Minnesota. Such turnover was expected - when you take two straight Stanley Cups from the league, the league starts to take pieces from you. Ditto with the 5 players as unrestricted free agents have left for greener pastures than Pittsburgh could or would provide in free agency.
It's very interesting that Tocchet's run has come to an end like this. He was hired as assistant head coach on June 25th 2014, just days after the Penguins canned GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma and only a few weeks after hiring Jim Rutherford to fill the GM job. The team didn't have a head coach, which is an unusual move. Given Tocchet's relationship with ownership in Mario Lemieux, many believed he was a "coach in waiting" and Pittsburgh's first offers to fill the HC job in Bill Peters and Willie Desjardins turned them down in favor of other jobs, in part because of the way the job was viewed in 2014.
Seems wild to think about now on just how undesirable the Pens head coaching job was just three summers ago, but it's true.
The Pens went on to hire first time NHL head coach Mike Johnston and that experiment failed, but the presumed coach in waiting in Tocchet wasn't installed as Pens HC, instead Rutherford chose to elevate Mike Sullivan from the AHL. The rest as they say was history with Sullivan guiding the Penguins to two straight Cups and formerly derided assistant coaches in Tocchet and Jacques Martin gaining attention for the solid work they did in support.
After being rumored to be in play for the Sabres and Panthers head coaching jobs earlier, the Coyotes now pluck Tocchet away for his second stint as a head boss after his time in Tampa.
What now happens for the Pens? Tocchet's primary responsibilities were working with forwards and also the power play. Unlike in 2014, there are no questions about the desirability about joining this coaching staff - though many of the best options are already under contract somewhere and won't be taking the gig at this time.
Mark Madden had an interesting perspective on the role Tocchet played in coaching Phil Kessel:
You can tell Kessel what to do: For example, head coach Mike Sullivan constantly told Kessel to put more pucks on net.
But Kessel won’t necessarily do as he’s told: For example, Kessel’s shot total this past season (229) was 45 shots lower than last year’s and Kessel’s lowest for an 82-game schedule since his second NHL season of 2007-08. Bizarre for a player with five seasons of 30 goals or more.
Kessel scored 23 goals this past campaign, his fewest for an 82-game season since ’07-08.
If you win the Stanley Cup, none of that is a problem.
If you don’t, it becomes a problem.
Kessel’s style does no damage in the locker room. He’s beloved as a teammate.
But Sullivan was often less than pleased with Kessel. Tocchet, however, served as a buffer and conduit between Sullivan and Kessel, and did his best to steer Kessel in the preferred direction. He also talked Sullivan off the ledge regarding Kessel.
Star players sometimes need that buffer. You can probably throw Evgeni Malkin right in there too, as being a unique talent who can sometimes make a head coach shake his head. Neither of these two stars are Jaromir Jagr levels of "hand-pick a head coach and then hold separate meetings with your line to install your own forechecking strategies", but the point remains that it is a challenge to coach and manage stars. Hell, old-time fans can even point out the butting of heads that Lemieux would have when it came to no less a coach than Scotty Bowman and his tactics.
"Ten or 15 years ago, you could tell a guy to do something and he was scared, so he went and did it," Tocchet said. "Now, you can’t scare players in this league. The old days, what a coach said goes. You didn’t talk to your players. Communication is huge now. They want answers, they want to be accountable. There’s different ways to make them accountable.
"You almost make them say it. You don’t have to tell them what they’re doing wrong. They can see it. That’s the secret to it."
Hockey's the ultimate team sport, but it's human nature that for best results sometimes star player's egos and personalities need massaged in a way that it can be critical to have the right voice (and a different advocate from even a great head coach) to get the best of results.
The dynamic between Kessel and Tocchet shouldn't be pushed away, as Madden noting Kessel's comments earlier this summer when Tocchet was a potential candidate for Buffalo
"He just gets it," Kessel told the Buffalo News. "He understands what it’s like to play the game, to be a player. He makes it fun. If he gets that opportunity, it would be unbelievable for him. I don’t want to see him go, right? Because he’s a great guy and a great coach."
Kessel is different than most star players in the NHL. While he doesn't need to totally be handled with kid gloves, he did have an obvious connection to receptiveness to Tocchet's voice and tone, and it seemed Tocchet knew how to address a unique personality and player like Kessel.
To replace Tocchet, there could be a few candidates. One obvious one would be current Wilkes-Barre head coach Clark Donatelli, who has done a magnificent job in WB/S. Donatelli figures to be next in the long line of coaches (Michel Therrien, Bylsma, Mike Yeo, John Hynes and Sullivan who all have jobs now, plus Todd Richards) to become a future NHL head coach. Is Donatelli best served as an NHL assistant? For himself and for the team, the best spot for Donatelli may be to remain in Wilkes-Barre another season.
As Madden pointed out, there's another great candidate who currently is unemployed, and ironically also a former WB/S head coach. And, though not nearly as fierce a player as Tocchet, he also has ties to the Cup winning Penguins. From Madden again:
Tocchet was a big part of winning two consecutive Stanley Cups. As important as an assistant coach can be. The same can be said of Jacques Martin.
Sullivan stirs the drink, of course. But he’s been surrounded by a quality staff. When Tocchet leaves, a big adjustment will be required.
Joe Mullen is available. The ex-Penguin has been coaching since 2000, and recently finished an 11-year stint with the Philadelphia organization.
Mullen would be a great candidate for the Pens job, and he filled such a role in Pittsburgh from 2000-05, before working in Philly as mentioned from 2007-17. With 502 career NHL goals, and 2 Stanley Cups as a Penguin Mullen would command a lot of respect and obviously has as much coaching experience as anyone else out there.
This summer has been an off-season of change for the Pittsburgh Penguins and in Tocchet they will lose a very important voice and vision from their recent success. While the assistant coach job is hardly a key spot, it is an important role. If the Pens can get Mullen to come in, it may just be the best possible replacement and voice out there to connect with skill players like Kessel and the rest of the big guns that make up the forward group.