VANCOUVER – As everyone in a healthy relationship knows, the truth hurts sometimes.
Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet whacked his players with the truth Saturday after his team followed an impressive 5-1 road win against the Seattle Kraken with a shoddy 4-3 loss one night later to the San Jose Sharks, the worst team in the National Hockey League.
Tocchet wasn’t wrong when he said the Sharks, beaten 10-1 by the Canucks three weeks earlier, tried harder and deserved to win – even if the shot attempts were 78-47 for Vancouver.
“This is a learning lesson,” Tocchet told reporters Saturday night. “You know, playoff teams don’t do this sort of stuff.”
But little in life happens in isolation. The Canucks were playing their seventh game in 11 nights, with travel preceding six of those games, while building a 13-6-1 opening quarter of the schedule. Vancouver is 3-4-0 in these last seven games, starting with an overtime win at home against the New York Islanders on Nov. 15, and played poorly in three of the four losses.
Typical of uncomfortable confrontations in relationships, in which grievances over time may appear to go unrecorded but are actually being catalogued for later use by one party against the other, what Tocchet said in San Jose wasn’t only about Saturday’s game.
“I think for the last seven games, our game slipped a little bit,” Tocchet explained after Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena. “And I’ve been very quiet, so I’m not going to be quiet very long.
“A great response today. That’s the one thing with these guys: I’ve had individuals come knock on my door saying. . . ‘you’re right, we’ve got to get our game (back).’ So it’s not like, you know, they’re calling our staff crazy. They recognize it. That’s the way I deal around here. I mean, I can’t be scared to give a guy praise or crap. And vice versa. That’s the partnership with a player and a coach.”
Which is partly what makes coaching professional athletes a fascinating study in human relations.
If a coach said everything he actually thought about every player and play, the relationships wouldn’t survive the first two-game losing streak.
Tocchet acknowledged this the second week of the regular season when he lit up his players after a dismal 2-0 loss in Philadelphia on Oct. 17 – “Who are we to think we’re anybody?” – but told Sportsnet in the aftermath that he needed to step back and allow players space to fix their problems.
“The room has got to handle some stuff,” Tocchet said before the next game in Tampa. “The coach can’t always go in there. I think, strategically, you’ve got to pick your spots. I have to be careful because as a player you can be a little bit more to the point. But as a coach, you do have to watch it. It’s a feel thing.”
So there was nothing rash or short-sighted about what Tocchet said Saturday. But that doesn’t mean his criticism was without risk, especially his comment that the team “wasted a great effort against Seattle.”
That effort was not wasted; it earned the Canucks two points and buried the Kraken farther back in the Pacific Division standings. Suggesting the effort was wasted also risks a disservice to the depth players who drove the team to that significant win – guys like Dakota Joshua and Teddy Blueger, Sam Lafferty and Nils Hoglander and Conor Garland.
“I think a lot of us were probably more disappointed than he was,” Joshua said of the step back in San Jose. “Toc has every right to be disappointed in us. But like I said, we’re more disappointed in ourselves that we let that one slip away.
“It speaks to his demands of us and what he expects from us. I don’t take it so much as a slap in the face. He was right. It wasn’t like we went in there wanting to throw the game away, but if we could redo it, obviously, we would all want that one back.”
Garland, who played for Tocchet in Arizona before both found their way to the Canucks, said: “He’s honest, but that’s all you want as a player. You want somebody to tell you the truth. When you’re not playing well, you want to know; you don’t want to be lied to. You want to have trust in somebody and that’s what’s best (with Tocchet) — you have a lot of trust.”
After getting both rest and practice days following their 7-Eleven stress test, the Canucks play seven of their next eight games at home, starting Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.
The come-to-Jesus moment after the Philadelphia game was followed by a much better effort by the Canucks in a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Vancouver went on an 8-0-1 heater that dramatically reframed the team and their season.
“We know the standard we’re trying to create here and I think the last. . . couple of weeks, you know, we’re trying to get back to that,” Canuck forward J.T. Miller told reporters on Monday. “No disrespect to the Sharks, but a bottom team. And if we lose to them, it’s not the end of the world. We’re two teams trying to beat each other. And are we happy with the way we played? No, but it’s a long season. We understand the team’s identity and standard, and that’s all we’re worried about.”
Later, Miller told us he saw nothing untimely about Tocchet’s criticism.
“Everything he said, it’s not like we didn’t know,” Miller said. “We talk day by day. I think it’s a sensitive world we’re living in where we do protect everybody a lot. But at the same time, we’ve got a job to do and he’s our coach. And he just basically commented on what happened in the hockey game. And he was not wrong.”
After being healthy-scratched for the weekend back-to-backs, Andrei Kuzmenko practised Monday in his regular spot with linemates Elias Pettersson and Ilya Mikheyev. Last season’s 39-goal scorer was dropped from the lineup in Seattle after Kuzmenko’s minus-three game Wednesday in Denver extended his goal-less streak to nine games.
“It’s not about last year; it’s about this year for us,” Tocchet said. “He’s a guy that needed a reset. We worked with him on a few things, some video. I thought he had a good practice today. That’s what I’m looking for tomorrow.
“When the puck’s out in the neutral zone, you’ve got to hustle back to be an option. Middle-drive guy, pucks around the wall, you’ve got to get them out in certain situations. I think those are the little things that I value around here. It’s not about just scoring goals. If you’re not scoring goals, that’s fine. Sure, you want him to score. . . but the little things matter. And that’s part of our staples and he has to understand that that’s the Bible for us around here.”
Winger Phil Di Giuseppe practised Monday as the 13th forward.