Rick Tocchet was announced on Monday as the Coyotes new head coach, becoming the franchise’s 7th head coach in Arizona (18th if counting the Winnipeg years also). He’s a coach who knows the area and the market well, having played in the city for parts of three seasons.
He comes to the job looking to make his mark as a head coach once again after a somewhat problematic first attempt nearly ten years ago in Tampa Bay, one that his head coach in Pittsburgh Mike Sullivan believes “may have come too early for him”.
So far he’s saying all the right things one would expect a coach to say about his new team: ”great group of players,” “great potential here,” and talking a lot about wanting to play his type of game with the team and allow players to express themselves. But, beyond the soundbites, and based on his previous coaching efforts in Pittsburgh, what does that actually mean for the Coyotes, and how will things change? Because one thing’s for sure, he’s a very different coaching prospect than Dave Tippett.
Freedom to Play
The first and perhaps the most noticeable difference the Coyotes will likely see next season is a much less regimented system. Dave Tippett was very much a believer in organized defensive hockey, an approach which has its fans in the NHL and has been proven successful in the past, perhaps the most famous example being Fred Shero’s Philadelphia Flyers, who were by no means the best team in the NHL at the time, but played rigidly to strengths and a plan.
Tocchet hasn’t become a product of that era. His past few years have been spent in Pittsburgh under a coach (Mike Johnston) who believes in simplicity being the mother of invention and creativity. Of course, it’s very easy to say you’re willing to let teams play when you have the luxury of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the front end and Kris Letang on the back end, but Tocchet already appears committed to giving the young stars in Arizona their head, too, as he told NHL.com:
"I don't want to take the stick out of guys' hands," Tocchet said. "We have some creative young players here so I want them to be creative and I want them not to think too much ... You have to give players freedom, especially in today's NHL, to play.”
That’s likely music to the ears of many players on the Coyotes team, especially those like Anthony Duclair and Max Domi, who at times seemed a little constrained within Dave Tippett’s system.
Fire and Movement
In order to get an idea of Tocchet’s philosophy, the most accurate place to look at the moment is, logically, the area in Pittsburgh that he had the most influence and control over, and that’s the powerplay. How a coach runs a system can tell you a lot about their philosophy in general, and the Pens PP in particular hints that Tocchet’s approach with the Coyotes may well be ideal for the types of players he now has at his disposal.
Under Tocchet, the Pens typically ran a 1-3-1 powerplay, which essentially saw an offensive defenseman used as the “quarterback” on the blueline, a “bumper” in the center between the circles able to either fire off a shot, pass or provide another screen in front, two shooters either side and then a player in front of the net, much like this.
Essentially, the whole focus of Tocchet’s philosophy both in this system and among the forwards in general in Pittsburgh is puck movement at speed. It’s an interesting hybrid system because the shots can essentially come from anywhere and it's increasingly becoming the standard in the NHL. In order to make it work you need a skilled offensive defenseman for the quarterback, a big forward willing to provide a screen in front, and players who are comfortable making quick decisions on both passing and shooting.
Video Example here:
Another example is this video link.
In short, it’s a system that could have been built for the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and many of the Coyotes crop of forwards. It’s a system that also contains a fair bit of autonomy, too, particularly for the quarterback - he is encouraged to shoot at will or feed either wing for one-timers.
The breakouts in Pittsburgh are also interesting when looking at the forward play. If you watched the Pens coming forward this season, they relied on counterpunching opponents with speed and quick strikes, which again seems built for much of the Coyotes system.
The Pens also are a team that love to carry the puck going forward into the zone. The Pens zone entry is typically initiated by a player crossing the blue line at speed with the puck, rather than the more traditional dump-and-forecheck approach. It’s one that emphasizes skating with the puck rather than battling to win it in the zone in the way a dump-and-chase might.
This, combined with his statements on how he wants the Coyotes to play, implies that we’ll see a much looser, speed-based system under Tocchet then we did under Tippett, with much more emphasis on firing many hard, quick shots than the slightly more patient and conservative game we’ve seen up until now.
This can only be a good thing for the Coyotes. They’re a team full of players who are much happier playing with the puck than without it, and in an NHL moving away from rigid, systemic styles and towards open, simple, free-flowing hockey, they need a coach willing to play to their strengths.
Along with the conversations on-ice, a lot of talk about Tocchet was focused around his relationships with players and how he can form them with players that other coaches have perceived as “troublemakers,” specifically Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh. On a young team with a mix of personalities, perhaps slightly outside the traditional NHL norm, a coach who can talk to them on their own level is key, particularly with players perceived as “difficult” as Anthony Duclair was last year. With Duclair’s undoubted talent, it’ll be interesting to see if the likes of he and Max Domi respond to a different style of coaching to Tocchet’s.
There’s also a culture of openness being emphasized by the new coach. He's already stated he “doesn’t want yes-men” as his assistants. This is an environment that will likely encourage more interaction between players and coaches and more mutual challenging of the other, which can only lead to more success in the long-term.
Attention to Detail
Finally, there’s Tocchet’s approach to winning the job. If someone comes to a coaching interview willing to run for 4-5 hours and already has put together a video package to explain how they view the team playing, there’s clearly an agile mind working there - one that is committed to improvement and usage of every tool at their disposal.
With a team looking to move forward at every juncture, a coach who can both minutely research his next move and communicate it to players is perhaps the most telling reason for signing him, and if his interview is anything to go by, there won’t be many more thorough coaches in doing so in the NHL.
A Fresh Start
After eight years, many could argue the Coyotes needed a change behind the bench and this offseason was the right time to do it. It remains to be seen exactly what the new era under Rick Tocchet will look like, but based on the past few years, it’s looking like it could be a big change for the better both on and off the ice, if the evidence of Tocchet’s work in Pittsburgh is anything to go by.