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.”

 

Simmonds to miss 2-3 weeks as Flyers’ injury woes continue

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The Philadelphia Flyers are winning a lot of hockey games right now but the injury bug has taken a pretty big bite out of them over the past couple of weeks.

After running out of veteran goalies (Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both sidelined for 4-6 weeks) and needing to trade for Petr Mrazek on Monday night, the team announced on Tuesday that forward Wayne Simmonds will be sidelined for the next two-to-three weeks due to an upper body injury.

Simmonds’ absence will be a big blow to the Flyers’ power play where he has become one of the best net-front players in the league. He leads the team with 10 power play goals this season.

[Related: Flyers acquire Mrazek from Red Wings]

He played 14 minutes in the Flyers’ 7-4 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday and got into a fight with Anthony DeAngelo early in the first period.

In 59 games this season he has scored 20 goals. It is the fifth consecutive season, and sixth time in seven years, he has topped the 20-goal mark. The only time during that stretch he did not reach 20 goals was the lockout shortened 2012-13 season when he scored 15 goals in 45 games.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canucks don’t trade Erik Gudbranson, instead hand him 3-year extension

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The wondering can now stop as the Vancouver Canucks have extended defenseman Erik Gudbranson for three more years.

The extension is worth $12 million and Gudbranson’s deal will carry a $4 million cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 NHL season.

“Erik is an important part of our team and provides a physical element to our blueline,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement. “His leadership qualities help us as we continue to integrate younger players in our lineup. He is a quality person, a great teammate, outstanding in the community and we are excited to have him as part of our team moving forward.”

It was two years ago that Benning, who inked an extension with the Canucks last week, traded Jared McCann and a pair of 2016 draft picks to the Florida Panthers for the defenseman. With the direction that the team is currently moving, and with the Boston Bruins coughing up a third-round pick for Nick Holden of the New York Rangers on Tuesday, couldn’t Benning have flipped Gudbranson for something similar before moving on to a Thomas Vanek trade before Monday’s trade deadline?

The Canucks are currently a weird mix of youth and veterans with big contracts, especially at forward — contracts that last beyond next season. They have all but one of their picks in the next three drafts at the moment, and should at least recoup one with a Vanek trade.

This extension is Benning digging his feet in and standing by a bad deal from two years ago. As Dimitri Filipovic of Sportsnet pointed out last week, flipping Gudbranson, whose minutes and possession numbers have dipped in Year 2 in Vancouver, would be the GM waiving the white towel and saying he lost the trade. Now he gets to stand by it and throw platitudes at the defenseman to convince himself that this was the correct way to go.

The one beneficial part of the Gudbranson deal for the Canucks? The lack of a no-trade clause, as per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. NHL GMs love themselves big defensemen and at 6-foot-6, 220 lbs., the 26-year-old checks that box. So there is a chance to pass this contract onto another team looking to add size to their blue line. But for now, that’s clearly not the plan for the Canucks.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Rangers trade Nick Holden to Bruins

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The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins have been rumored to be possible trade partners for a defenseman, and on Tuesday afternoon it happened.

It just wasn’t the defenseman — Ryan McDonagh — that people were talking about.

Instead it is Nick Holden heading to Boston.

The Trade: The New York Rangers send Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins for defenseman Rob O'Gara and a 2018 third-round draft pick.

Why the Rangers make this trade: They told their fans changes were coming. The team is falling out of the playoff race, it needs to hit the reset button, and Holden is an unrestricted free agent after this season that probably did not fit in with the new direction of the team.

At 24 and with only 11 games of NHL experience under his belt O’Gara probably isn’t much in the way of a prospect, while the third-round pick is probably the key to the deal for the Rangers.

Why the Bruins make this trade: They get a veteran defenseman to add some depth to their blue line for a potential Stanley Cup run. It’s not the blockbuster move that acquiring a player like McDonagh would have been, but given the low cost it could prove to be a pretty solid depth move.

Holden, 30, has been with the Rangers since the start of the 2016-17 season and has 14 goals and 32 assists in 135 games with the team over the past two years. He had a really strong year offensively a season ago (setting career highs across the board) but has seen a bit of a regression this season. He won’t need to play the 20 minutes a night he was playing in New York and could fit in nicely as a depth defenseman in Boston.

Who won the trade: Both teams get what they’re looking for. The Bruins get a depth defender for a Stanley Cup and don’t have to pay a steep price, while the Rangers cash in an asset that probably wasn’t going to re-sign with them after the season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Red Wings ‘open for business’ as GM Ken Holland eyes the future

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This is unique ground for the Detroit Red Wings. They are on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season, something they haven’t experienced since 1983. It’s a new experience for general manager Ken Holland, who is looking toward the future and selling assets, as opposed to bolstering his lineup for the postseason.

Monday’s trade of Petr Mrazek for draft picks isn’t the start of Holland’s overhaul of the roster — he said he doesn’t believe in “massive rebuilds” — it’s just the continuation of a process that he hopes will make the Red Wings contenders again.

Mrazek’s the first to go, and next will likely be Mike Green, an unrestricted free agent on July 1, before Monday’s NHL trade deadline. The Red Wings have a number of players set to become restricted free agents this summer like Andreas Athanasiou, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, among others, so there could also be some salary shedding in the next six days (Hi, Luke Glendening!)

“I want us to be a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup,” Holland said as he met the media on Tuesday morning. “I want us to be a better team. We’re competitive. We’re not quite where we need to be. In order to be where we want to be, I’ve got to acquire draft picks, and we need to hit on those draft picks. The more draft picks that I can acquire or young players through trades is a better chance that we’re going to wake up three, four, five years from now, two years from now, and start to see the young players coming onto the team and having an impact on the team.”

The Red Wings currently have seven picks in the first four rounds of June’s entry draft and four in the opening three rounds of the 2019 draft. There will likely be more added before Monday, which will help Holland’s plan.

Hitting on draft picks was a huge reason why the Red Wings became a model franchise beginning in the late 1990s. Scout Hakan Andersson is credited with finding franchise pillars like Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, all of whom played big roles in their Cup victories over the last 20 years.

Hitting on draft picks is also very difficult, which is why the Red Wings were so fortunate that many of their draftees turned into backbones of those Cup winning teams. That’s why Holland says he’s open for business and wants more and more draft choices in his possession so his scouting staff can uncover those gems to lead future teams.

“It’s going to happen at the draft table,” he said.

While there’s an eye on the future, Holland says he’s not looking to tear it all down. He also isn’t putting all of his eggs in the draft lottery basket, noting that just because your odds are high doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to have one of the first few choices; and even then, no team is guaranteed a homerun.

If the Red Wings are to be back to the level they once were, fans can expect what Mike Babcock said when he took over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ job: “pain.” Holland noted that, and while he’s trying to accumulate futures, he still wants to have veterans around to guide those young players. And if you look at their salary cap picture and some of the long-term deals he’s handed out, he won’t have to worry about older guys not being around. Some will be there for quite a while still.

But the one thing hanging over all of this is whether Holland is going to be the guy to see this retooling through. His contract reportedly expires after this season and there are those Seattle rumors, plus the Illitch family may decide it’s finally time to have someone else in the GM’s chair.

Maybe Holland gets kicked upstairs after the season and bides his time before connecting with Seattle whenever they enter the league. But for now his focus is the tough job ahead of turning the Red Wings back into a consistent winner.

“We’re not good enough quite right now,” he said. “For me, it’s about trying to acquire pieces that I think can have an impact on this team three, four years down the road in order to build a team that’s a playoff team, that’s got a young foundation.

“That’s the goal. Those are the decisions that I’m making.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.