Rick Tocchet

What’s driving the Coyotes’ hot streak

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To steal Zoolander parlance — only appropriate for a team that once employed Martin Hanzal — the Arizona Coyotes are so hot right now.

The Coyotes are on a four-game winning streak following Tuesday’s overtime win against the Rangers, and are 5-0-1 in their last six, erasing the discomfort from an 0-2-0 start where they only managed a single goal.

If the playoffs began right now, the 5-2-1 Coyotes would be the second wild-card team in the West. Could this be a sign that this is finally the year?

Let’s look at what is working so well so far, and how much of it is sustainable, with help from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Glorious goaltending

Darcy Kuemper played at such a high level from January on in 2018-19, it seemed like he might just drag the wounded Coyotes to a playoff spot. Even so, it seemed a little hasty when the Coyotes handed Kuemper a two-year, $9 million extension in early October.

Well, if the 29-year-old can stay anywhere near the level he’s been at lately, that could be a mega-steal.

Kuemper’s only allowed 10 goals over six appearances, going 4-2-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage to begin the season. He’s the first goalie in Coyotes franchise history to allow two or fewer games in 13 consecutive starts, carrying over last season’s red-hot work.

Delightfully for the Coyotes, Antti Raanta‘s shown signs of the sharp goalie he was pre-injury nightmares, as Raanta’s 1-0-1 with a .926 save percentage through two games.

Even if Kuemper is the real deal, one would expect the Coyotes’ league-leading team save percentage of .9388 to cool off; last season, the Islanders topped the NHL with a .9247 mark that would already be tough to match.

It’s plausible that goaltending could remain a strength for Arizona, though, particularly if they maintain their strong start when it comes to possessing the puck and limiting high-danger scoring chances against.

Luck and other peculiarities

As always, it’s important to take any eight-game sample with a grain of salt.

Nick Schmaltz is a good example, alongside goaltending, of “could be good, probably won’t be that good.” He already showed signs of flourishing in a bigger role in Arizona after being traded from Chicago last season (14 points in 17 games before injuries derailed things), but Schmaltz’s nine points in eight games is inflated by puck luck, including a 21.4 shooting percentage. There’s evidence that he might be a strong shooter in general (14.2 shooting percentage in 187 career games), but he’s likely to cool down to some extent.

It will also be interesting to track their power play. Last season, their 16.3 power-play percentage ranked sixth-worst in the NHL. Of course, they added Phil Kessel during the summer, and he’s been part of a unit that’s scored seven goals on 27 opportunities, good for a 25.9 percent success rate that ranks seventh overall.

PDO is a helpful metric for measuring luck (it’s merely save percentage plus shooting percentage), and so it’s worth noting that the Coyotes’ 1.030 mark ties them for fourth-highest at all strengths in this young season.

There’s at least one way where things could get tougher if the Coyotes are perceived as more of a threat.

Five for Howling recently pointed out an interesting trend: so far in 2019-20, the Coyotes have frequently faced opposing teams’ backups. That might be a coincidence, but if it continues to even a subtle extent, it could be helpful in a league ripe with parity.

Fewer trips to the trainers

Last season, the Coyotes were absolutely ravaged by injuries, to the point that it’s tempting to give them a mulligan. So far in 2019-20, Arizona’s been healthier, although it remains to be seen if they can can continue to thrive so much defensively with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the shelf.

Like with most NHL teams, injury luck (or a lack thereof) could be pivotal for Arizona.

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Yes, it’s too early to know for sure, but which way do you lean: could this be the year the Coyotes put it together, or will 2019-20 end in another disappointment?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Tocchet ensuring Coyotes ‘don’t waste days’ in pursuit of playoffs

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When the hockey community gathers in Las Vegas in late June for the 2019 NHL Awards, Rick Tocchet could very well be there as one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award. The Arizona Coyotes head coach has guided his team into a wild card spot in the Western Conference as they’ve dealt with ridiculous number of injuries this season.

HIs focus, however, is on the playoffs, not any trophy talk.

“I try not to even think of that stuff,” Tocchet told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “I’m very lucky that this organization and the staff we have with the assistant coaches, the trainers, the medical guys, we’re a very tight group here, and the players are tight as well. That really helps support me. I know when I come to the rink I’ve got great support. When you’ve got great support, you’re hopefully making good decisions, you’re not all over the map. 

“Any time you’re mentioned in anything, it’s a feather in your cap, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s more we’re a day-to-day team. I don’t even think of that stuff. I try not to, at least.”

Entering Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis, the Coyotes are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference with a game in-hand. A run that’s seen them win 11 of their last 15 games as some previous challengers faded has put Tocchet’s team in a good spot. It hasn’t mattered they’re second in the NHL with over 330 man-games lost to injury, it’s the old next-man up mentality.

“I’ve been involved in the NHL 30-something years, never,” Tocchet said about the rash of injuries that have hit the Coyotes this season. “Never to this devastation. You get a bunch of guys with groin injuries or something, but not out for the year knee injuries. I’ve never seen more knee injuries in my life, five or six where guys are out for the year or for four months.”

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What’s kept the Coyotes afloat as players were sidelined on a regular basis is that the morale of the team didn’t drop and their practice habits remained strong. Tocchet began to notice that the day after a game, especially a loss, his players were attentive and strong on details during the 30-45-minute skates.

Good practice habits were a key part of Tocchet’s makeup as a player and something he wanted to instill in his players when he became an NHL head coach. He credits using practice time advantageously to helping the Coyotes bounce back from a loss or maintain a winning streak.

“We don’t waste days here,” Tocchet said. “I think guys understand that we don’t have a team that can just turn it on or off, and that starts in practice.”

Before arriving behind the bench in Arizona, Tocchet’s coaching career surrounded him with superstar players. In Colorado he worked with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, and Patrick Roy. In Tampa, there was Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and a young Steven Stamkos. He won two Stanley Cups as an assistant in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel. Seeing the practice habits of future Hall of Famers and NHL superstars showed him that that’s where the path to success begin.

Tocchet has evolved as a coach since his two years behind the bench in Tampa a decade ago. He learned to be more decisive working alongside Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh. Seeing Sullivan take information from his staff and process it and then make a decision right away was something he added to his skillset.

“I don’t really listen to the outside noise like I used to,” Tocchet said. “And communication, I think I’ve always been a good communicator, but I think over the last four or five years that’s been my go-to thing, communicating with players.”

Aside from making his players better, the Coyotes have helped Tocchet during this wild season. It can’t be easy hearing on a regular basis that yet another player will be missing multiple weeks or months, but if you go back to those practices, that important time on the ice, the team has helped keep the head coach level.

“They’ve really kept me positive. Sometimes I can get emotional,” Tocchet said. “I’m not really a negative guy, but if we have a bad effort, I try not to be upset the next day because the team gets energy from the coaching staff. 

“But they’ve given me energy, these guys. When they come in and they work hard after a terrible loss, it gives me energy. It gives me hope.”

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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.

Rick Tocchet on Coyotes’ struggles, Clayton Keller, staying patient (PHT Q&A)

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The Arizona Coyotes have won just three of their first 21 games, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan going into the year. Still, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.

On Thursday morning, Pro Hockey Talk had an opportunity to catch up with Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet. We chatted about the rough start to the season, Clayton Keller‘s incredible rookie season, the positives he’s seen in his team’s game, and much more.

Enjoy.

PHT: Coach, you came from an environment where you won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins. You’ve come to Arizona and you’re now coaching a team that’s trying to find themselves. What’s been the most difficult part for you mentally?

TOCCHET: “You want instant success. Obviously, the last couple of years have been unbelievable for me, so you come to this and you want the same thing to happen, but it doesn’t happen that way. It’s a process. That’s the one thing I like about the organization, we’re not going to accelerate to win short term. They’re willing to take hits now for the process of it. That’s something I’ve gotten better at in the last two or three weeks. I know it hurts to lose.

“I still don’t think we’re a two-win team. I think, with some solid goaltending early in the season, we’d have four or five wins by now. Saying that, I think it’s just a process we have to stick with.”

How far do you think this team is from being a playoff team?

“I don’t know. I could tell you it’s three years or two years, but I don’t know. All I know is that I want these young kids to improve. I feel certain guys are playing better. I think some guys are starting to get it.

“The biggest challenge for us is to keep doing the right things when you lose. Because when you lose, you change your game sometimes, you try different things that you shouldn’t try. And that’s the biggest challenge for me, is to make sure that these kids do the right things and that this team does the right things because eventually it’s going to help.”

I know two wins in your first 20 games isn’t how you drew it up, but what are some of the improvements you’ve seen in your team since the start of the season?

“Well, some of the top teams we’ve played (against), where it’s 2-2 with five minutes left. We look at the scoresheet at the end of the game and they had 15 chances, we had 15. So we’re playing even up for 45-50 minutes, but it’s that 10 minutes where we lose the game because of consistency or the other team just has great players, too. It’s something that we have to learn to play 60 minutes. It’s hard to win in this league and it’s hard to play the right way for 60 minutes, and that’s what we have to learn here. It’s about mindset.”

I think everyone knew Clayton Keller was a skilled player, but how surprised are you to you to see him play close to a point-per-game pace 20 games into the season?

“Yea, he’s been really good. What marvels me is that he’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s only going to get stronger, and he’s going against top players against other teams and how he’s coming out of the corners with pucks. He’s got the puck on his stick and he’s making plays. That’s what’s really been surprising to me.

“I didn’t know he was going to be this good this quick. The arrow is just pointing (up), he’s only going to get better. The only thing I keep teaching him is don’t get frustrated. Because when you lose and you’re not getting points-the last couple of games he hasn’t gotten points- you get frustrated, and I don’t what that frustration to affect his game.”

Everyone sees the offensive ability in his game, but is there something he does that flies under-the-radar a little bit?

His poise in the corners. As a small guy, sometimes you think ‘ah, he’s not a good corner guy,’ but when he gets in the corners somehow he has elusiveness. Like, he gets out of the corners with the puck, he doesn’t just throw pucks away, he’s not scared. He’s been going in the corners with some really good defensemen and I think he’s done a nice job coming out of it, making a play. He doesn’t throw pucks away.

“Usually, young guys when they first come up they get the puck, they throw it away. They don’t realize how much more time they have sometimes. I think he’s exceeded that for me.”

How have you changed from when you were the head coach in Tampa Bay (2008-2010)?

“I think I’m more decisive. You have to tweak your lineup, you have to tweak certain concepts, but I’m totally different. I know the way I want to play, I’m not going to change (it), I know it’s successful. I know the certain players that I want and the team I want to become.

“In Tampa, I think I listened outside too much to other people. Obviously, you have to listen to the people in your organization, but I know this is the way I want to play and I’m very decisive about it.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins appreciate now-Coyotes coach Tocchet’s role in Cup wins

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When Rick Tocchet returns to Pittsburgh, he will see another Stanley Cup banner in the rafters and be celebrated for his part in earning it.

Tocchet doesn’t plan on reminiscing too much about the Penguins’ back-to-back titles, except perhaps for one important moment.

”I’m looking forward to my ring, yeah,” he said.

Tocchet will get his third Penguins Cup ring, his second as an assistant coach after one as a player, when he visits as coach of the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night. Whether it was fostering relationships with Phil Kessel and younger players or running the power play that scored on 21.9 percent of its chances during the 2016 and 2017 Cup runs, Tocchet was a valuable piece of the organization and is appreciated as such.

”The role he had, he did it extremely well,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said Monday. ”He had a good read on the players and was able to communicate on a one-on-one basis with whatever they were dealing with hockey-wise and personally or whatever. He did a terrific job for us and played a key role.”

Tocchet settled into a comfortable spot on Pittsburgh’s coaching staff, especially once Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015. Sullivan values Tocchet’s knowledge and said over the summer they grew to trust each other through some challenging times.

Tocchet doesn’t want to claim an oversized chunk of the credit for the Penguins’ back-to-back championships.

”You just do your part,” Tocchet said after the Coyotes’ morning skate in Washington. ”The players for me are the major contributors, Mike Sullivan obviously making the decisions. … Even a team that wins a Stanley Cup, your fourth-line player has to do something. To win a Cup, everybody has to kind of pull the rope, and that’s the way we did in Pittsburgh. Whether you’re a player, coach, a scout or whatever, I think everybody contributed.”

The Penguins are planning a video tribute to Tocchet to play during the Coyotes’ only visit of the season, and fans no doubt feel a special connection with him after he also played on the 1992 Cup team. But the 53-year-old pointed to his Stanley Cup party over the summer as closure on his Pittsburgh days and insisted his focus is on helping Arizona rebound from losing 13 of its first 15 games.

Of course, one text he got in the middle of the struggles shows how likable he was to Penguins players. It came from captain Sidney Crosby with a simple message: ”Hang in there.”

That kind of camaraderie is already building with the young Coyotes, who routinely ask Tocchet about Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and others to pick his brain about some of the best in the game.

”Obviously guys are interested in what (Crosby has) done because of how successful he was and his relationship with Coach Tocch,” Coyotes rookie forward Clayton Keller said. ”It’s good to have that relationship. Not many guys get to work with Sidney Crosby. He definitely has a lot of information.”

Tocchet feared early in his Arizona tenure that he was name-dropping Crosby and the Penguins a little too much. Only his new players keep asking, and he has enough in the memory bank from the past three years to keep it coming.

”It’s mostly the players engaging: ‘Hey, what does Crosby do in these situations? What does Malkin do in this situation? How does this guy do that?”’ Tocchet said. ”So that’s the engagement, and I love that because they want to learn. If you’re 20-year-old kids, they watch YouTube. They want to see how these guys do certain things, and I love that about it.”

As Tocchet passes on what Penguins stars did at practice or in key situations, he’s conscious that their success as a team helped him get his first job since parts of two seasons with Tampa Bay from 2008-2010.

”I was very fortunate to have a great staff, work for Mike Sullivan,” Tocchet said. ”I learned a lot from him. And I also learned a lot from the players. I was lucky enough to coach the Crosbys, Malkins, Kessels, Letangs – high-end guys that keep you on your toes.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Martin rejoins Pens’ coaching staff as special assistant to Johnston

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Jacques Martin will have a new role with the Pittsburgh Penguins next season the club announced on Tuesday.

Martin will now be a special assistant to head coach Mike Johnston.

During the 2014-15 season Martin was a part of the Pens’ coaching staff in a scouting and advisory role. The 62-year-old was in charge of pre-scouting opponents and providing the coaching staff with opponent’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

“One is personnel, on players, some strengths and areas that we can exploit on certain players,” Martin said of his role last season. “The second component is looking at the team’s play, systems and what we can to do to counteract that.”

Martin will continue to pre-scout opponents next season, but will do it via video.

His new role will be to analyze games from the media level and provide instant analysis to Johnston and his assistants on the bench.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Martin said. “I have a good relationship with the coaching staff and management. Being closer to the team and provide feedback, use my experience from over the years, just giving them another opinion.”

Martin joined the club as an assistant coach in 2013-14 on Dan Bylsma’s staff. Last season his official title was senior advisor of hockey operations.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, assistant coaches Gary Agnew and Rick Tocchet will remain on the bench with Johnston.