August 30, 2023, 9:24 AM
VANCOUVER — The soft start to the Vancouver Canucks’ season came in Whistler last week, when head coach Rick Tocchet assembled his staff for a quiet getaway to plan training camp and discuss goals. Remarkably, they played some golf, too.
Hired in January to replace Bruce Boudreau, Tocchet is eager to work with players in September in his first training with the Canucks and is hopeful of getting the team back to the National Hockey League playoffs. Of course, Boudreau was similarly optimistic a year ago before excitement turned to desperation when the Canucks began 0-5-2 and were booed out of Rogers Arena in their home opener.
This time, however, the coach has the full support of general manager Patrik Allvin — and with it the moral authority to hold players accountable and make whatever changes he deems necessary to build a winning culture.
We caught up with Tocchet by phone upon his return home to Las Vegas, and in our interview touched on lineup changes, culture change, leadership and the captaincy, Elias Pettersson’s contract, Thatcher Demko’s workload and what the Canucks require to win.
This interview transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
Sportsnet: You managed to keep your coaching summit quiet. What did you get out of taking your staff to Whistler?
Rick Tocchet: Coaches, just like players, when you have a lot of time off, you get rusty. Players go on the ice and work on their skill, but you lose that competitiveness. When you’re off, like, how do you get that competitiveness back? And it’s no different for coaches. Throughout the summer — don’t get me wrong — I was watching video, I was doing stuff. But now you start ramping up and I thought that meeting got us all back on the same page.
Are we going to change stuff? Have we learned something from the top teams last year? From my experience … 95 per cent of the time, you stay the same. But there’s that five or six per cent, you change.
Sportsnet: Your coaching staff changed slightly when Jason King, who had worked for both Boudreau and Travis Green before you, was let go in the summer. So, who will run the power play?
Tocchet: Sergei Gonchar and the twins (Daniel and Henrik Sedin), and I’ll take a big chunk of it for now, and then we’ll go from there. I’ll be honest with you, I’m going to really rely on that core group of guys on the powerplay to come up with ideas.
Sportsnet: Gonchar joined the staff with you, but only in a part-time role. Is that changing?
Tocchet: He’s still on that kind of part-time (arrangement). But I think I’m going to get more out of him in the sense of more days. If Sergei’s on the road part time, maybe road trips (when he’s away), can I get one of the twins to come? But they’re all in. Sergei, even though he’s at home half the time, he’s still in contact, still calling players, still watching video, still sending video. He’s just not there every day.
Sportsnet: And what about the Sedins, who split their time between the NHL and AHL last season as player-development coaches?
Tocchet: I would like to use them more, have them more involved.
Sportsnet: How much did you talk to your players over the summer?
Tocchet: I’ve been talking to the leadership group quite a bit. I’ve talked to a lot of our players. But I’ve talked to Petey quite a bit, obviously Millsy (J.T. Miller) and Hughsie (Quinn Hughes) and Demko. I think that’s important how you empower your leadership. Let them make decisions sometimes; it makes them accountable to their teammates.
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Sportsnet: And will one of those guys be named captain to fill the vacancy created when Bo Horvat was traded last season?
Tocchet: That’s something that, you know, it’s still fluid and we’re still talking about it. We have a lot of potential guys. It’s a matter of now trying to figure out, do we name a captain or do we not? We’ve obviously talked about it.
Sportsnet: The big news from August is that Pettersson will wait before deciding whether to re-sign in Vancouver. How do you feel about that?
Tocchet: I think it’s important that the agent knows his client. Some guys can deal with (contract) pressure and some guys can’t. I know Petey is really focused on getting himself in top shape and taking his game even to another level. Obviously, I don’t know Petey that well to know how he can handle the pressure (when) the media keep talking about it. But at the end of the day, I like what he said: ‘I’m in no rush. I’m more concentrated on trying to get myself ready, trying to get the team ready, and then we go from there.’
Sportsnet: Does Pettersson waiting put even more pressure on the team to win this season?
Tocchet: If we check all the boxes every day. . . if Petey sees a well-run organization, a well-run coaching staff, and he sees improvement from our players — our role players, even the star players — I know he loves the city. I know the fan base embraces him. So if we can check most of the boxes, maybe that will be more enticing for him to sign. That’s just my take on it.
Sportsnet: You said at the end of last season that you wanted players to return to Vancouver by mid-August and start skating together. That didn’t really happen. Obviously, it works against you that the Canucks do not have a practice facility, but are you disappointed there weren’t more guys in town?
Tocchet: It’s a great question because it’s give and take, right? We don’t have a practice facility (and) Rogers Arena was under construction. There’s a lot of things that we just don’t have, so I can’t really blame the players. But saying that, I think there’s, like, seven guys in skating now. And next week, I think we’re going to have 25 guys. I want to give kudos to the players because I know the leadership really banded together to get guys to come back. And next week, after Labour Day, I think we’re going to have at least 20 to 25 guys skating. And that’s a big win for me.
I can’t be disappointed players were not here in mid-August because they probably had a facility or something where they were. We’re working on that as an organization. We want players to stay and train under our umbrella, under our roof. The best teams do that.
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Sportsnet: The team started so badly the last two seasons it was never able to recover. In both cases, the poor starts were preceded by poor training camps, which were undermined by injuries and absences and, last season, the dysfunction between coach and management. How important is it to get this training camp and pre-season right, so the team has a chance to start well?
Tocchet: There’s a lot of pressure on players. My big thing is how do we as an organization, as a team, meet pressure with pressure. I know it’s a cliche, but heat and pressure, you make a diamond. Can we be a diamond? How do you deal with pressure? Preparation, commitment, being selfless. These aren’t just buzzwords.
Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about we have to have a good start. Well, that’s pressure. If we’re prepared for it, we’ll deal with it. Don’t run away from pressure. Meet pressure with pressure. Let’s, as a group, attack it instead of (being) scared of it.
Sportsnet: Your defence changed over the summer with the buyout of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the free-agent signings of Carson Soucy and Ian Cole. The team also added some centre-ice depth by signing Teddy Blueger and Pius Suter. Is this a stronger roster?
Tocchet: I think we (filled) some needs, right? We got some grittier guys that have a good pedigree on the penalty kill. That’s something, obviously, that’s been an eyesore for the organization for a long time. Getting Cole and Soucy, Blueger and Suter … these guys are very good penalty killers. They’re grittier guys. They’re willing to block shots. They don’t let pucks through them, they knock pucks down. That’s what good penalty killers do.
Sportsnet: Do you have a true third-line centre after Pettersson and Miller?
Tocchet: Right now, yeah. It’s a committee. Production-wise, we’ll see. I’m not comparing us to the Stanley Cup champs, but if you look at Vegas with their lineup, they kind of spread it around. They did a nice job and everybody contributed. Can we be that type of team, where we spread it around?
Sportsnet: The organization did not sign an experienced backup goalie. We all know Thatcher Demko must stay healthy and play a full season like he finished the last one in order for the Canucks to succeed. But is there enough support around him?
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Tocchet: I’m comfortable. I’ll tell you what, he (Demko) is a motivated guy. I love talking to him. I mean, he is dialed in. Now my job and our team’s job is to make sure he’s not getting 40 shots (each game). If he’s playing post to post and he’s got to stop 13 or 14 Grade-A chances a night, then obviously the wear and tear on him is going to be pretty high. But you know how I feel about playing away from the puck, how I feel the team should play in front of the goalie. So whether it’s (Arturs) Silovs or (Spencer) Martin, I think it will take care of itself. But, like I said, I don’t care what team you are, if you’re giving up Grade-As every night … it’s not a good thing.
Sportsnet: What is this team capable of achieving?
Tocchet: This team is capable of success. It’s a matter of making everyone understand how hard it is to win. To be a winner, you’ve got to do a lot of uncomfortable things. I was only there 30-something games. . . but I can see there are some players, I don’t know if they realize where we have to go. It’s going to be very uncomfortable to go where we want to go. But if we have that mindset and we’re prepared and we’re willing to go there, we’ll have success. Is that to make the playoffs or win one round? I don’t know. For me, it’s: Are we willing to be uncomfortable as an organization to get to the next level?
Sportsnet: We’ve been talking about the good, young core on the Canucks for at least three years. Allvin has talked about it. Former GM Jim Benning talked about it. Is it time for these players to take this team to the next level?
Tocchet: They’re very talented players. They’ve had success individually and point-wise. But they know it’s not so much the individual stuff as team goals. Are they willing to sacrifice certain parts of their game for the team? That’s something I really believe they have in them.
Everybody is tired of losing. You hear everybody say that. That’s OK to say that, but what are you doing to change that narrative? These are things I challenge the players on. You’re tired of losing, but what are you doing about it? When I talk to the leadership group, they’re not talking about goals and assists. They’re talking about changing the narrative. Now it’s the actions. What are you doing to change the narrative?