Tocchet has blueprint to improve young Coyotes

The new Coyotes coach learned a lot while winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins, now he will try to impart those lessons on the kids in Arizona.

The Arizona Coyotes want to bring a Pittsburgh Penguins vibe to the desert. That was part of the reason that Rick Tocchet was hired as the team’s new coach, but he’ll have to do it without the elite veteran centers that Pittsburgh has rode to the past two Stanley Cups. Still, the Coyotes are excited to bring in Tocchet, the former Pens assistant coach, thanks to his overall body of work and his ability to connect with players.

“He was the best candidate by a wide margin,” said GM John Chayka. “He has a large degree of success in different capacities, as a coach and a player.”

One of the most intimidating NHLers of the 1980s and early 90s, Tocchet has gone from power forward to powerful voice. Chayka noted that his new coach commands a room when he walks in with his “steely presence” and the ascent of players such as Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel in Pittsburgh all speak to Tocchet’s ability to help youngsters excel at the highest level.

“He’s very firm,” Chayka said. “He can motivate, he can be aggressive in his approach, but he can also be that big brother to our younger players and that will be helpful.”

The Coyotes have a ton of young talent right now – perhaps too much, given the rigors of the Western Conference – but all the high draft picks will go for not if the team can’t come together and compete. Chayka acknowledged that this past year’s roster underperformed, but he believes Tocchet can get it on track.

And from an outsider’s perspective, it’s hard not to like a lineup that features Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun, with Clayton Keller, Christian Fischer and Dylan Strome on the way. Having said that, those kids are paper champs right now; the real results must come on the ice.

With Shane Doan gone, the leadership void must be filled by star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, but having Tocchet come in will surely help.

“It’s a young squad,” Tocchet said. “You have a lot of prospects, a lot of players who were stars in junior and they’re coming together now. That’s the attractive part to me. Chicago went through it, Pittsburgh went through it – you gotta go through that process to win. When I looked at this roster, I thought there was potential to really grow this into something big.”

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Now the matter is execution. Keep in mind, Edmonton wandered the badlands for years until lucking into Connor McDavid, so it takes more than just hope in the pipeline. While every coach says they want to play the game fast these days (OK, not Guy Boucher), Tocchet definitely has a blueprint from his time in Pittsburgh and he plans on using the silky skills that his new troops have been blessed with – to a point.

“You have to give players freedom,” he said. “But I’m not going to sell the farm; it has to be calculated.”

If all goes according to plan, that means an Arizona team that will be creative offensively and not think too much. The Coyotes will pressure opponents and the defense will activate on the rush. That will be music to the ears of players like Domi, Keller and Ekman-Larsson.

And Tocchet doesn’t come into Arizona blind. He has been a head coach in the NHL before, slogging through nearly two brutal years with Tampa Bay at the beginning of the Steven Stamkos era. So he has seen things at the bottom. But he has also been part of the past two NHL titles with Pittsburgh, learning from old buddy Mike Sullivan. The Pittsburgh coach has been the gold standard of bench bosses lately, so Tocchet is coming from a great learning environment.

Now the mission is to apply those lessons. How quickly can Tocchet turn things around? That will be something to watch. He didn’t want to put a timeline on playoff berths, instead falling back on the idea of improving his players “inch by inch” and game by game. But he did have a message for the hockey world:

“I can’t quantify wins or losses,” he said. “I know one thing: we want pressure. I think pressure breeds success. We want to be relevant in these games.”

And relevance is definitely needed in Arizona these days.