What’s next for the Canucks after coaching change?

What's next for the Canucks after coaching change?
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Rick Tocchet was named the 21st head coach in Vancouver Canucks history on Sunday.

He takes over a team that’s 27th in the NHL in points percentage (.424), is expected to trade its leading goal-scorer, Bo Horvat, and faces a full-on fan revolt against ownership and management about how they mismanaged his predecessor Bruce Boudreau’s firing and the abysmal state of the team.

Welcome to Vancouver, Coach.

“I don’t look at it as a tough start,” Tocchet said during his introductory news conference. “I look at it as a new day tomorrow. All of that other stuff lessens and lessens [each day].”

Tocchet, 58, had served as a studio analyst for TNT’s NHL coverage for the past two seasons. Prior to that, he coached the Arizona Coyotes from 2017-18 through 2020-21 and earned praise for exceeding the low expectations for those teams — thanks in part to frequently outstanding goaltending. He was also a head coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning for two seasons.

His most notable coaching success came as an assistant to Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups as part of his staff. Canucks president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford was the general manager of those teams; Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin was the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting.

Tocchet played 1,144 games in the NHL with six franchises and was known as a physical forward who could hang offensively.

What does Tocchet’s hiring mean for the Canucks, both on the ice and in the trade market? Here’s a glance at what happened, and where it’s going for the team and its new coach.

What does Rick Tocchet bring to the Canucks?

Boudreau went 50-40-13 (.549 points percentage) in his two seasons with Vancouver. He was hired by owner Francesco Aquilini before Rutherford was brought on board. Rutherford publicly groused about that — basically saying that Boudreau was still coaching the team this season out of contractual obligation — and was openly critical of Boudreau in interviews.

At Sunday’s news conference, every one of Tocchet’s virtues seemed like a correction to what Canucks management didn’t like about Boudreau.

About a month ago, Rutherford and Allvin had a meeting with Boudreau in which they discussed how “the bottom half of the lineup had declined” and that their younger players had regressed. Tocchet stressed that there are some “role players” on the team the Canucks needed to get more from in the lineup.

In November, Rutherford was openly critical of the way Boudreau ran the team’s training camp and said the Canucks had to have “a stronger system” and “really be more accountable for more of the things that some of the players are struggling with.” Allvin stressed that Tocchet relates to the players and provides structure and accountability, and praised the way his teams practiced.

While Tocchet was careful not to lay out his plans in contrast with what Boudreau’s teams weren’t doing, he cited the team’s penalty kill (an atrocious 65.9% success rate, last in the NHL) and overall defense (3.96 goals against per game, 31st overall) as parts of the team that need immediate attention. Part of that is seeing whether there are players on the roster who could play on the penalty kill that aren’t currently doing so, he said.

“We have to tackle that,” Tocchet said. “With that, there’s structure, without sacrificing offense.”

One of the lingering questions about Tocchet from his Arizona days was offense, as the club ranked 27th in goals per game (2.60) during his time there. In his first three seasons with the Coyotes, they had the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL.

Tocchet defended that record, saying it was a function of having a young roster that needed to learn game management and play meaningful games. So the Coyotes leaned into keeping the score close with goalies Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta.

When it comes to Vancouver’s offense, which ranks 10th in the NHL (3.28 goals per game), Tocchet said it needs to play smartly.

“I never discourage [offensive creativity],” he said. “You just have to make sure that it’s calculated. I don’t like river hockey. You can’t win with river hockey.”

To that end, Tocchet cited the way the Colorado Avalanche played on their journey to their Stanley Cup championship last season, which he covered as an analyst on TNT.

Tocchet’s reputation is that of a “players’ coach,” and he cited building relationships with players as one of the keys to his potential success in Vancouver. He’ll have two strong helpers in accomplishing that: assistant coach Adam Foote and defensive development coach Sergei Gonchar, who were hired with Tocchet.

What does this mean for the Canucks in the short term?

The goals for the rest of the season are modest. No one is expecting a miraculous turnaround for a team that currently has less than a 1% chance of making the Stanley Cup playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight. Nor would that be in the best interests of the team, if we’re being honest — not with phenom and Vancouver native Connor Bedard at the top of the 2023 draft class.

Just don’t expect the T-word from a Tocchet team.

“I don’t think tanking is the right word to use,” Rutherford said.

Wherever they end up in the standings, Canucks management just wants to see positive signs. “What we’re looking for now is progress from here to the end of the year,” Rutherford said.

In the short term, the buzzwords are “teaching,” “culture” and “structure.”

Allvin said that when he was hired by Rutherford, he “envisioned establishing a culture and a standard for a championship team.” Having former Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton behind the bench for the AHL affiliate in Abbotsford was one step. The hiring of Tocchet is the next one.

Tocchet has talked about continuing to foster an environment where the Canucks’ successful players like center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes can continue to thrive.

He was peppered with questions about forward J.T. Miller, whose point production has dropped after signing a new seven-year contract through 2029-30. Tocchet has the reputation for connecting with players with whom others struggle to break through — he was known as the “Phil Kessel Whisperer” in Pittsburgh, after all.

One interesting name on Tocchet’s new roster is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is signed through 2026-27. They had a challenging relationship in Arizona when both were with the Coyotes. Tocchet downplayed the notion there was any lingering heat with Ekman-Larsson.

Tocchet said priority No. 1 is building relationships with his players.

What does this mean for the Canucks in the long term?

When Allvin discussed this job with Tocchet, he informed him that the Canucks were not “a quick fix.”

That much is clear since Rutherford and Allvin took over. Many of the players on this roster were carried over from unsuccessful teams from the regime of previous GM Jim Benning. The team doubled down with new contracts for Miller (seven years) and Brock Boeser (three years), rather than moving either of them last summer for help in other areas. There’s a great core in Vancouver with Pettersson (24), Hughes (23) and goalie Thatcher Demko (27). The supporting cast just hasn’t materialized around them.

Rutherford recently admitted that he was disappointed with his performance as head of hockey operations, being unable to move players with team-unfriendly contracts. He said what he used to feel was a roster that required “minor surgery” to one that needs “major surgery, and between now and the start of next season, we’re going to have to make some changes.”

By firing Boudreau and hiring Tocchet, the Canucks are snapping on their surgical gloves.

“Part of the reason the coaching change was made now is that maybe some of the players who struggled, they are who they are,” Rutherford said.

Can Conor Garland (22 points in 45 games) find his game under Tocchet, who coached him in Arizona? What will Nils Hoglander and Vasily Podkolzin show if they get another look in the NHL? Does the bottom six have more to give?

Once this audition period is over, the Canucks will turn back to the trade market and, as Rutherford has indicted, the potential for buyouts for players like defensemen Tucker Poolman and Riley Stillman.

The biggest thing that Tocchet’s hiring does, in the long term, is give the management team “their guy” behind the bench. This trio worked together in Pittsburgh. They all seem like they’re on the same page about the culture and structure they want in Vancouver. That cohesion could go a long way toward remedying some of the dysfunction that has plagued the franchise.

What does this mean for Bo Horvat?

Horvat, Vancouver’s 27-year-old captain, has 30 goals in 46 games and will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Rutherford admitted that his tremendous walk-year campaign has changed the economics for Horvat’s next deal.

“The contract that we have on the table for Bo right now I think is a fair contract for what he’s done up until this year,” he said. “But it’s certainly under market value for what he’s done this year. So we’re in a pickle here.”

Allvin said the team is still talking to Horvat’s agent, Pat Morris, and “we’ll see where it goes.” But the general manager wouldn’t confirm whether he would grant permission for the Horvat camp to negotiate a contract extension with another team before a trade.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek reported over the weekend that the asking price from Vancouver is three players, including a top prospect, for Horvat, and that the Canucks have begun figuring out which suitors would be willing to meet that price.

The hiring of Tocchet probably doesn’t impact Horvat’s situation all that much — especially since the Vancouver captain found another level under Boudreau. The ultimate decision on Horvat is an economic one, and the numbers add up to him moving before the March 3 trade deadline.

Finally, can the Canucks mend their relationship with the fans?

Canucks fans are angry. The team has one playoff appearance in the past seven seasons, making the 2019-20 pandemic “bubble playoffs” and advancing to the second round in what’s now considered an aberration.

The fans are mad at ownership, disgruntled with management and frustrated by underwhelming results on the ice. Their perception of how the team treated Boudreau only exacerbated those feelings. There was the public criticism of his coaching from Rutherford, followed by his lame-duck status while the Canucks waited for Tocchet to be contractually allowed to leave TNT for Vancouver.

“The Canucks letting this drag on turned it into a public relations nightmare,” Vancouver blogger Daniel Wagner wrote. “Boudreau was left dangling, coaching out one of the toughest parts of the schedule with the understanding that they were his final games.”

Canucks fans cheered and chanted, “Bruce, there it is!” for Boudreau in his final games, supporting a coach they felt was wronged. Boudreau called it “the most incredible thing I’ve experienced on a personal level other than winning championships.”

Allvin didn’t help matters on Sunday, saying that he decided to make a coaching change “this morning” while also saying “this is not something we came up with last week. This has been something that’s been on my mind since I took the job.”

Rutherford apologized for some of his public criticism of Boudreau’s coaching, but made no apology for the way Boudreau was hung out to dry while the team talked to Tocchet in the worst-kept succession secret in the NHL. In fact, he said this hiring timeline was no different than when Aquilini had Boudreau ready as his next coach when Travis Green was fired in 2021.

Tocchet said part of his job is to insulate the players from the “noise” in the fan base. He intends to create a locker room that’s “a safe environment” for the players, blocking out the negativity about the franchise. He also sought to defuse any additional controversy he might bring to the team by deleting his Twitter account; recently, fans discovered some questionable activity on his public social media feed.

“I had it when I was at TNT, promoting stuff,” he said. “Now as a head coach, it was time to get rid of it.”

Now that Boudreau is out and Tocchet is in, can the healing begin between the fans and the franchise?

Allvin, who gave fans credit for the way they saluted Boudreau, believes there’s really one way to bring an infusion of positivity to Vancouver: winning hockey games.

“I believe the fans in Vancouver are missing a banner in the rafters,” he said. “That’s what the fans want to see. And they want to see a team that competes every night.”

The latter is Rick Tocchet’s calling card. Seeing the Canucks anything less than competitive and engaged under his watch would be a surprise. Tocchet may even be a factor if the Canucks ever do unfurl a championship banner — but not the primary one. If Vancouver turns this around in the long term, it’ll be thanks to successful “major surgery” on this roster, the leveling up of the remaining players, and a series of smart moves by a management team with a Stanley Cup pedigree — hopefully free from the meddling of ownership.

Oh, and a little draft lottery luck wouldn’t hurt, either.

Bedard, there he is?

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