SEATTLE — On Tuesday, he was praising his team and urging them to “embrace the hardness.” On Wednesday, he called them soft.
Welcome to the Vancouver Canucks, Rick Tocchet.
Players seemed to be testing the new coach’s desire for the job in his second game, offering little resistance in a humiliating 6-1 loss to the Seattle Kraken, 24 hours after the Canucks did almost everything Tocchet wanted in a 5-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks.
We get it, the Kraken aren’t the Blackhawks. But the Canucks weren’t close to the same team Wednesday that they were Tuesday.
It wasn’t just that the Kraken looked like a speedboat to the Canucks’ barrel, blowing them out of the frozen water with their speed, transition game and puck pressure.
It was that Vancouver didn’t compete. OK, the Canucks can’t skate with the Kraken. The only way the Canucks might keep up is to play fast. It’s possible; the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t a fast team but they’ve been to the last three Stanley Cup Finals and have won two of them.
But this requires predictability and consistency — traits that are alien to the Canucks. To play fast, a team needs all five skaters in the right place at the right time, deliberately and quickly moving the puck, confident that everyone is aligned.
The Canucks are like the start of the Hunger Games, desperate, terrified, scattered, bolting in different directions. And they’re slow.
But how about winning a puck battle? How about trying to play northward, even if it just means sending the puck to a safer place?
This is what the Canucks failed utterly to do against the Kraken, the second-year franchise that is now 20 points clear of their Interstate-5 rivals and light years ahead of a Vancouver team that has no sense of identity.
“You hate to call your team soft, but it was soft tonight,” Tocchet, who was never soft as a player, told reporters. “We didn’t participate on the wall battles. We didn’t get a rim out. We didn’t play predictable. Like, old habits came. We’re just talking to the coaching staff and, man, I wish I had about 10 practices. I really do, because it shows tonight that we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Tocchet and his rebuilt staff have had one practice since Bruce Boudreau was fired as head coach on Sunday, handing off a defensively inept, 27th-place team behind.
Thursday is a scheduled day-off, and then the Canucks play at home Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets before an eight-day extended break for the National Hockey League All-Star Game.
Tocchet’s next practice will be Sunday, Feb. 5, in New Jersey — after an all-day flight across the continent. The Canucks’ schedule restarts that Monday against the Devils, who are an eastern version of the Kraken, only better.
“It’s hard for them to stay in good habits with the frustration — I don’t like to say it — the anxiety,” Tocchet said of his players. “I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. The gameplan is there and it’s hard to continue to do it. Sometimes when you play a good team like that, it’s OK to live for another shift. Just advance the puck. You don’t always have to make a home-run play. And we’re trying to make home-run play after home-run play, and then it’s two, three, four-nothing, and then the game is over.”
The Kraken led 2-0 after 10 minutes and 4-0 after 28. By the middle of the second period, shots were 25-10 for Seattle, and scoring chances were 17-2, according to naturalstattrick.com.
“We can’t come out like that,” Canuck Elias Pettersson said. “From the first drop of the puck, they were hungrier than us.”
After surrendering only 14 shots against the dismal Blackhawks, the Canucks gave up 14 to the Kraken in the first 14 minutes.
“We need to understand that if your legs aren’t feeling great and the other team is pouring it on, what can we do to kind of weather that storm?” Curtis Lazar, who shot off teammate Conor Garland for the Canucks’ only goal, explained. “We weren’t able to do that; our mistakes seemed to compound. I mean, that’s kind of been the story all season: We don’t really know how to manage the game and how to turn the tides.
“There’s going to be growing pains and whatnot, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to compete, you’ve got to battle. They out-battled us all over the ice, too, and it’s hard to get pucks back when that’s the case. It’s hard work, but to be that high-caliber team, you’ve got to bring it every night and kind of find a way to be effective, even if you don’t have your legs.”
Asked for his overriding takeaway from the first two games, Tocchet said: “Listen, you know, we all know there’s some holes we’ve got to fill. We’ve got to get that leadership group stronger, a more resilient team, obviously. I’m not making excuses, but maybe the anxiety caught up to them. Everybody looked tired, everybody couldn’t handle the puck. Usually, some games, you have three or four guys that don’t look good. There was a couple of guys actually really trying out there but the rest of the guys were really struggling tonight.”
So was the power play.
Another 0-for-5 night has the Canucks on a 0-for-16 nosedive with the man-advantage the last four games. But this trend isn’t new, just extreme. Since Dec. 7, the Canuck power play is 30th, third-worst in the NHL, at 14.1 per cent.
“That’s on me,” power-play lynchpin J.T. Miller said. “I’m not really a threat right now. We’re just not finding a way to contribute like we should be. I know that we take a lot of pride in the power play and creating a lot of momentum. Some days we get some looks but there’s got to be times where we wanted it a little bit more.”
Tocchet said he kept his struggling first-unit intact for three late power plays because he wanted to see how the players would react. Had he been coaching the team longer, Tocchet said he would have used others.
Miller’s 16:50 of time on ice included 6:06 of power-play time. His 10 even-strength minutes were 11th among 12 Vancouver forwards.