Rick Tocchet is the kind of coach who doesn’t mind if a player calls him at 9 p.m. to share a thought.
He doesn’t expect that to change as he goes from a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant to head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. Tocchet has done it before, and his 148 games as an NHL head coach make the 53-year-old one of the more experienced hires this off-season as teams look for the next new idea rather than recycling from the past.
Three vacancies were filled by first-timers: the Buffalo Sabres’ Phil Housley, Florida Panthers’ Bob Boughner and Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Green. Tocchet and the Los Angeles Kings’ John Stevens are longtime assistants with some time running a bench, while the Dallas Stars’ Ken Hitchcock and Vegas Golden Knights’ Gerard Gallant represent the only seasoned coaches.
Almost every general manager cited communication skills as a major reason for prioritizing youth over experience.
"It’s clear for me: (Tocchet is) one of the best communicators I’ve come across, not only in hockey but probably professionally as well," Coyotes GM John Chayka said. "He can just relate to the players. He’s very firm. He can motivate. He can be aggressive in his approach, but he can also be that big brother kind of approach."
Tocchet, Housley, Boughner, Green, Stevens and Gallant all played in the NHL in the 1990s and represent the new-school concept of a players’ coach, mixing positive relationships with accountability. Likable Jon Cooper took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final in his first go-’round, while other experiments like Dallas Eakins, Claude Noel, Ron Rolston and Mike Johnston didn’t go so well.
More time is needed to determine the success of some, like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Dave Hakstol, New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes and Colorado Avalanche’s Jared Bednar, but teams are more willing than ever to take a risk on coaching rookies. Ten of the 31 coaches are in their first head jobs in the NHL as some prominent experienced coaches like Lindy Ruff, Jacques Martin, Jack Capuano and Marc Crawford have accepted roles as assistants.
Florida GM Dale Tallon went through an "exhaustive, extensive search" before Boughner’s interview blew him away, and Chayka talked to more than 25 coaches before calling Tocchet the best candidate by a wide margin. Kings GM Rob Blake said "there was literally no search" as Stevens was the natural fit to succeed Darryl Sutter, and the Canucks didn’t interview anyone but Green, who coached their top minor league affiliate for the past four seasons.
Buffalo GM Jason Botterill said Housley was "uniquely qualified" for the job based on his playing and coaching careers. Hockey experience on the ice and at other levels may be just as valuable to executives picking coaches.
"I’ve been a player, I’ve been an owner, I’ve been an executive, I’ve been a head coach, an assistant coach," Boughner said with a significant nod to his time in junior hockey. "I know this league and I know the game and I’m ready for this challenge."
One of the biggest challenges in the transition from assistant to head coach is the different dynamic with players. Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie had Boughner as an assistant in Columbus and considered him approachable but someone who knew when to "put his foot down."
MacKenzie acknowledged it won’t be exactly the same with Boughner in charge. After winning the Stanley Cup the past two seasons with the Penguins, Tocchet figures he won’t alter his approach in Arizona.
"That’s the million-dollar question to me because I don’t want to change as a person," Tocchet said. "I don’t think that because you carry a title ‘head coach’ that all of a sudden you’ve got to be distanced from your players."
His old boss disagrees. Mike Sullivan, who spent several seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella between head-coaching gigs and was hired by the Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, insists there’s a delineation in day-to-day duties.
"Ultimately I have to make difficult decisions, whether it be playing time or lineup decisions or power-play combinations," Sullivan said. "I think by nature of the head-coaching position, it’s a very different relationship. … That’s just reality."
Tocchet was credited with helping Phil Kessel, Housley with Ryan Ellis and other Nashville defencemen, and Boughner with Sharks Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. But perhaps more in common than their hands-on work in improving players, these first-time head coaches all sold their styles as fast and exciting.
"I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands," Tocchet said. "I want them not to think too much. I want them to play. … You have to give players freedom, especially in today’s NHL, to play."