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As it turns out, Rick Tocchet was a really vital piece of the Penguins

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How much does an assistant coach matter? In the case of Rick Tocchet, a TON

2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Former Penguins’ assistant coach Rick Tocchet sat down with Spittin Chiclets’ Paul Bissonnette (also, of course, a former Pens’ player) and they discussed a lot of interesting topics, since both are two charismatic guys.

A couple of note for us shed some real light and insight on how it is to manage and handle star players. And the very different ways Crosby, Malkin and Kessel kept Tocchet on his toes.

Tocchet, on how it is to coach star players:

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Media Day Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“I learned a lot [from Mike Sullivan] and I learned a lot from the [star] players. I really think the players look at you and they test you. They ask questions and you better have some answers for them. If Sidney Crosby asks you a question about a faceoff play you better have some legit answers.”

Tocchet also referenced a story that’s been told before about Crosby, ever the student of the game, texted his coach on a Pens’ off-day about another NHL game going on. Tocchet needed to tell him to wait until the next day to be able and review what he was talking about.

On managing Evgeni Malkin:

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

“Geno, early on, I wanted to kill him. I didn’t really get along with Geno early. My personality, I don’t really know why.”

Tocchet shared a story of how he handled his star:

“We communicated but not really much with me. And I remember we were playing Florida, and 4-on-4 is man-on-man [defense]. And Geno lost his man and they scored a goal. And it happened twice before on the road trip [earlier]. And Sully goes, ‘Tocc, will you tell him?’ so Geno comes to the bench. I don’t yell, as an assistant coach.

“I go to talk to him and he basically [cusses] me, in Russian, like basically snaps on me. I’ve never lost it in my life like I did, Biz. In 15 years of coaching. I snapped at him. I’m not gonna tell you what I said to him, but it wasn’t nice. But my favorite part of this whole thing, I snapped at him, he sat there and I gave it to him. And Sully goes, ‘Tocc take it easy’ and I don’t take it easy.

“And then Kessel looks at me, ‘Tocc, I got him, don’t worry’ — he was joking— ‘leave my centerman alone!’

“And I go, ‘you fuck off too!’

“And he goes, ‘what did I do wrong, what did I do wrong?’” (note: Tocchet has a great Kessel impression of the slightly nasally high-pitched upper midwestern accent).

“He actually — Kess did a good job of defusing the whole situation.

“The next day, Geno comes up to me at practice. ‘Hey coach, sorry coach, you still talk to me?’

“I said, ‘Geno, I’ll go to war with you. You’re a hell of a player.’ And since that day, I’ve loved Geno. It was just a thing we had to go through and, man, he’s played some great games for the Penguins.”

Former teammate Paul Bissonnette chimed in on Malkin: “he’s a bit of a bully, similar mentality to [Mike] Keenan - where if you go back at him [once he challenges you], he has more respect for you. I got along with him very well. He does it in a comical way; like come up to the front of the line [in practice and say] ‘get to the back of the line. Take your puck and go away’”.

Tocchet then confirmed a semi-famous urban legend about what happened in Washington prior to Game 7 of the 2017 playoffs about Kessel chirping his assistant coach, and Tocchet giving it back a little, eventually escalating into a challenge for Tocchet to do 15 chin-ups as gathered around while in his full suit in the underground of the arena.

Tocchet did 16 chin-ups but downplayed that as having any role in what turned out to be a 2-0 win in Game 7. But Tocchet did point overall to that event as the type of spice that Phil brought to the table.

“That team needed personality, and Phil brought that. It was a very serious group before he got there, and Phil lightened the load. I gotta give him a lot of credit. He did bring a personality to that room.”

Tocchet also talked about how he handled Phil by talking poker and diverting attention from power play meetings and how to make the adjustments they want to.

Considering this interview was recorded last month (prior to the trade going down) it was an interesting look at Tocchet’s approach. And while certainly there was no surprise, he definitely is very fond of Kessel as a player and a person.

You can listen to the interview here, or search Spittin Chiclets on the podcasting device of your choice.

The timing of getting a look at these relationships and dynamics is very fitting, since Sullivan was asked about a recent conversation he had with Malkin. With Tocchet out of the equation, it looks like the Sullivan-Malkin-Kessel dynamic wasn’t very healthy or a good working relationship in the past couple years. From The Athletic:

At times last season, Malkin confided to friends his frustration with feeling caught between a boiling-over rift between Sullivan and Phil Kessel, Malkin’s longtime winger who was recently traded to Arizona. Malkin had grown exhausted by what he perceived as being the middle man between Kessel, a friend away from the rink, and Sullivan, a coach Malkin has said he holds in high regard.

Kessel being on his way out of Pittsburgh was one of hockey’s worst-kept secrets. Knowing as much, Malkin was said to be hopeful that he and Sullivan could start anew with their meeting and put himself in a good place emotionally for when he heads to Moscow for offseason training later this month.

Whatever they discussed — and how much the conversation extended beyond issues pertaining to Kessel — Sullivan would not divulge details Friday.

It’s always interesting to see the inter-personal workings of a team and getting a chance to remember NHL teams are real people with real emotions and figuring out how to work together can sometimes be challenging.

Based on all these stories and anecdotes that have surfaced of late, I would say the importance of how Tocchet meshed in Pittsburgh probably can’t be over-stated. He showed he had to put aside some ego to deal with Malkin, think outside the box to find different ways to coach Kessel by incorporating non-hockey topics. It couldn’t have always been easy to massage the head coach’s message to both of them, but Tocchet did well and the team had unqualified success winning two straight Stanley Cups.

In Tocchet’s departure, the wheels really fell off in 2018-19 where Malkin had one of his worst individual seasons, the power play group hemorrhaged goals against, and the current coaching staff really couldn’t keep that chemistry mix right — resulting in Pittsburgh ultimately choosing to trade Kessel for a lesser forward and a prospect.