Experience not required: Rookie coaches a growing NHL trend

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Rick Tocchet is the kind of coach who doesn’t mind if a player calls him at 9 p.m. to share a thought.

He doesn’t expect that to change as he goes from a Pittsburgh Penguins assistant to head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. Tocchet has done it before, and his 148 games as an NHL head coach make the 53-year-old one of the more experienced hires this offseason as teams look for the next new idea rather than recycling from the past.

Three vacancies were filled by first-timers: the Buffalo Sabres’ Phil Housley, Florida Panthers’ Bob Boughner and Vancouver Canucks’ Travis Green. Tocchet and the Los Angeles Kings’ John Stevens are longtime assistants with some time running a bench, while the Dallas Stars’ Ken Hitchcock and Vegas Golden Knights’ Gerard Gallant represent the only seasoned coaches.

Almost every general manager cited communication skills as a major reason for prioritizing youth over experience.

“It’s clear for me: (Tocchet is) one of the best communicators I’ve come across, not only in hockey but probably professionally as well,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “He can just relate to the players. He’s very firm. He can motivate. He can be aggressive in his approach, but he can also be that big-brother kind of approach.”

Tocchet, Housley, Boughner, Green, Stevens and Gallant all played in the NHL in the 1990s and represent the new-school concept of a players’ coach, mixing positive relationships with accountability. Likable Jon Cooper took the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final in his first go-’round, while other experiments like Dallas Eakins, Claude Noel, Ron Rolston and Mike Johnston didn’t go so well.

More time is needed to determine the success of some, like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Dave Hakstol, New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes and Colorado Avalanche’s Jared Bednar, but teams are more willing than ever to take a risk on coaching rookies. Ten of the 31 coaches are in their first head jobs in the NHL as some prominent experienced coaches like Lindy Ruff, Jacques Martin, Jack Capuano and Marc Crawford have accepted roles as assistants.

Florida GM Dale Tallon went through an “exhaustive, extensive search” before Boughner’s interview blew him away, and Chayka talked to over 25 coaches before calling Tocchet the best candidate by a wide margin. Kings GM Rob Blake said “there was literally no search” as Stevens was the natural fit to succeed Darryl Sutter, and the Canucks didn’t interview anyone but Green, who coached their top minor-league affiliate for the past four seasons.

Buffalo GM Jason Botterill said Housley was “uniquely qualified” for the job based on his playing and coaching careers. Hockey experience on the ice and at other levels may be just as valuable to executives picking coaches.

“I’ve been a player, I’ve been an owner, I’ve been an executive, I’ve been a head coach, an assistant coach,” Boughner said with a significant nod to his time in junior hockey. “I know this league and I know the game and I’m ready for this challenge.”

One of the biggest challenges in the transition from assistant to head coach is the different dynamic with players. Panthers captain Derek MacKenzie had Boughner as an assistant in Columbus and considered him approachable but someone who knew when to “put his foot down.”

MacKenzie acknowledged it won’t be exactly the same with Boughner in charge. After winning the Stanley Cup the past two seasons with the Penguins, Tocchet figures he won’t alter his approach in Arizona.

“That’s the million-dollar question to me because I don’t want to change as a person,” Tocchet said. “I don’t think that because you carry a title `head coach’ that all of a sudden you’ve got to be distanced from your players.”

His old boss disagrees. Mike Sullivan, who spent several seasons as an assistant under John Tortorella between head-coaching gigs and was hired by the Penguins midway through the 2015-16 season, and insists there’s a delineation in day-to-day duties.

“Ultimately I have to make difficult decisions, whether it be playing time or lineup decisions or power-play combinations,” Sullivan said. “I think by nature of the head-coaching position, it’s a very different relationship. … That’s just reality.”

Tocchet was credited with helping Phil Kessel, Housley with Ryan Ellis and other Nashville defensemen and Boughner with Sharks Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. But perhaps more in common than their hands-on work in improving players, these first-time head coaches all sold their styles as fast and exciting.

“I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands,” Tocchet said. “I want them not to think too much. I want them to play. … You have to give players freedom, especially in today’s NHL, to play.”

 

The Buzzer: Benn vs. Benn, poor get poorer

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Line of the Night: The St. Louis Blues’ superb top trio.

Seemingly every night, at least one of the NHL’s best scoring lines seems to make its case as the best. It’s getting to the point where any off night is surprising, which seems almost impossible in a league where it’s still (allegedly?) tough to score on a nightly basis.

In Tuesday’s case, the Blues’ red-hot trio of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko added to the Oilers’ profound miseries by triggering an 8-3 stomping.

Schwartz scored one goal and three assists, while both Schenn and Tarasenko enjoyed ridiculous two-goal, two-assists nights. Schwartz and Schenn both are at 30 points in 2017-18, while “The Tank” is rolling with 26. Tarasenko almost had a hat trick today, but settled for the Gordie Howe:

Highlight of the Night: Jamie Benn vs. Jordie Benn, just in time for American Thanksgiving.

(They’re Canadians, but still.)

Shared sadness: The Canadiens lost a hard-fought game to the Stars as the 3-1 margin of defeat was inflated by an empty-netter, while the Oilers were just humiliated, yet both teams really needed wins and neither even got a standings point for their efforts. Times are getting tense for two Canadian franchises that came into 2017-18 with high hopes.

Brendan Gallagher‘s reaction to the empty-netter says it all:

Factoid of the Night: Clearly, it’s totally Connor McDavid‘s fault.

Scores

Canucks 5, Flyers 2

Blues 8, Oilers 3

Stars 3, Canadiens 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

On fire vs. fireable: Blues humiliate Oilers

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If you judge a person or sports team by how they react to their backs being up against the wall, then the Edmonton Oilers were complete failures on Tuesday.

Whether you place most of the blame on Connor McDavid (bad) or management (fair), the bottom line is that a response was needed, as people are already doing the math to wonder if the Oilers can dig themselves out of an early hole with a huge rally.

Instead, we saw the same story tonight, only it was sadder and more dramatic. The St. Louis Blues absolutely dismantled the Oilers by a score of 8-3, and that deficit wasn’t an unfair depiction of what happened on the ice. The red-hot Blues absolutely dismantled the Oilers, seemingly scoring at will.

Just check Paul Stastny‘s body language after this beautiful goal; it almost seemed like the veteran forward felt squeamish about the carnage going on in Edmonton’s zone.

Again, it was the same story with McDavid straining to create quite a few chances, even while dealing with an unspecified sickness (note: sickness not a joke about the poor team around him, this time).

It seems fitting that the same few Oilers contributed at least something to the cause, as McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were involved in Edmonton’s three scores.

This loss encapsulated a lot of the themes of this season for Edmonton: not enough support, a cratering structure, and goaltending Cam Talbot having a miserable night.

Morale in Edmonton is, uh, low.

Now, none of this should take away from the West-leading Blues’ side, as they flexed their muscles once again. Really, the main debates surrounded if the Blues were the best in the West by a large or merely a slim margin.

It was a banner night for one of the best lines in the league in Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tarasenko almost had a hat trick, but will settle for the Gordie Howe variety, as he dropped the gloves with Matt Benning.

Fittingly, the Oilers didn’t even win that battle, either.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Fight video: Vladimir Tarasenko vs. Matthew Benning

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Vladimir Tarasenko earns the nickname “Tank” because he’s a big, hoss-like scorer and because it matches up well with his name.

He showed a different kind of firepower on Tuesday, though, as he took exception to a Matthew Benning hit and decided to fight the Edmonton Oilers defenseman. The bout happened even as the Oilers seemed like they were getting a precious scoring chance, but the crowd in St. Louis was riled up mainly to see the superstar drop the gloves.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the first battle for “The Tank.” According to Hockey Fights’ listings, Tarasenko fought once in 2015-16 and another time in 2014-15, while also dropping the gloves once in the KHL.

(This is his first fight against someone not named Ryan, as he exchanged fisticuffs with Ryan Kesler and Ryan Ellis in his other NHL fights. I mean, unless Matthew Benning’s middle name is Ryan?)

So far, the Oilers haven’t been showing as much fight as Tarasenko, as the Blues currently hold a 3-0 lead and chased Cam Talbot. Read more about what’s been a tough night for goalies so far here.

Tuesday has not been kind to goalies

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There are three games on Tuesday, yet we’ve already seen two goalies benched for poor play.

If variety is important to you … hey, at least the two situations were different, albeit with some regrettable moments of pucks going into nets.

The most depressing probably came during Tuesday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues, which you can watch on NBCSN right now.

Now, you can justifiably hang a lot of the Oilers’ struggles on poor management from GM Peter Chiarelli, yet it’s also true that teams/coaches/general managers often see their reputations rise and fall with the play of their goalies. Cam Talbot has already been struggling in 2017-18 after playing outstanding hockey – and a ton of games – last season, but tonight serves as one of his shortest and most troubling efforts.

(And Talbot gets whatever is the opposite of bonus points for languishing while angst is nearing a fever pitch in Edmonton.)

Talbot made it through just 7:35 of ice time on Tuesday, allowing two goals on just three shots before Todd McLellan understandably pulled the plug. This Dmitrij Jaskin goal was a real soul-crusher for the reeling Oilers:

Credit Laurent Brossoit for playing very well in relief of Talbot, at least as of this writing. But this isn’t what the Oilers wanted to see. (Brossoit just allowed a goal, but he has been sturdy overall with a lot of time left in this game).

Negative night for Neuvirth

Compared to Talbot, Michal Neuvirth had a long night for the Philadelphia Flyers. Unfortunately, it was a long night in more ways than one, as Neuvirth struggled against the unexpectedly potent Vancouver Canucks.

Neuvirth got the hook after giving up four goals on 22 shots over 34:26 of game time. Some of that’s on the defense in front of him, as Philly can’t be happy to give up so many chances against a Vancouver team that still has something to prove.

So, this leaves one burning question: will any other goalies get benched tonight? As it is, two out of three is quite bad. Sorry Meatloaf.