Coach Rick Tocchet's personality, playing style paying off with Vancouver Canucks

NASHVILLE — Rick Tocchet drew ample respect during his 18 seasons as an NHL player.

Now he’s doing the same behind the bench — and leading the Vancouver Canucks to their best season in over a decade in the process.

Tocchet was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy on Friday, awarded annually to the NHL’s top head coach.

“He was a great player, obviously. Probably should be a Hall of Famer, right in that conversation, for sure,” said fellow Adams nominee Andrew Brunette, who played with Tocchet on the Washington Capitals during the 1996-97 season.

Brunette’s currently the bench boss of the Nashville Predators who will look to extend their season Friday when they host Tocchet's Canucks in Game 6 of a first-round playoff series. Vancouver leads the series 3-2.

Winnipeg Jets coach Rick Bowness is the third nominee for the Jack Adams Trophy, which is voted on by members of the NHL Broadcasters’ Associaton.

Tocchet and his team are both intelligent and hard to play against, Brunette said.

“Reminds me a lot of his mentality and style. They’re in your face, they’re not giving you any space, they’ve got some skill,” he said. “And that really epitomizes the player he was. Along with being a really tough guy.”

Over the course of 1,144 regular-season NHL games, Tocchet put up 440 goals and 952 points. He won the Stanley Cup while playing for the Penguins in 1992, then added two more championship titles to his name as an assistant coach for Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017.

Tocchet previously served as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Arizona Coyotes, and worked as a hockey analyst on TNT before taking over the struggling Canucks in January 2023.

For Conor Garland, the coaching change brought in a familiar face.

The winger, who spent three seasons playing for Tocchet in Arizona, describes his longtime coach as a "great man" who cares deeply about his players.

"I know guys have dealt with stuff that he’s helped them with mentally and he makes sure you’re doing all right," Garland said.

"That’s why guys love playing for him. It’s not just ‘Are you playing well for me?’ He worries about guys and that’s what makes people want to run through a wall for him. That’s why you have such buy-in.”

Dedication to the coach is translating into results. Under Tocchet, the Canucks have a 70-35-13 record with a .648 winning percentage.

This season — Tocchet's first full campaign in Vancouver — the team posted a 50-23-9 record and finished atop the Pacific Division to earn its first playoff spot since 2020.

He's consistently preached the importance of structure and keeping a level head, and under the new coach's guidance, many of the club's brightest stars have shone.

Quinn Hughes put in a franchise record-breaking performance this season and is a favourite for the league's top defenceman award. Goalie Thatcher Demko is a Vézina Trophy nominee, despite missing a month with a knee injury. Right-winger Brock Boeser hit the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career. Three Canucks players ended the campaign among the league's top-20 point producers.

“A lot of success this year," Garland said. "You’ve got a lot of guys that are bought in and want to work hard and want to earn their ice. When you play well, you get more and when your game’s not there, you’re going to get less. It’s pretty black and white. The rules apply to everybody.”

The system in Vancouver doesn't differ much from the one Tocchet utilized in Arizona, Garland added. The players and their skill levels are different, he said, but the team defends the same way and the coach's expectations are the same.

The way Garland and the coach work together has evolved, but there are constants, too.

“Obviously, I’m a little older now. Don’t need as many reminders from him as I did when I was younger. But I still get them from time to time," he said. “Fortunate for me, he’s had me for so many games — probably over 300 now — that he knows what my good hockey looks like and when it doesn’t.”

The reminders seem to be paying off. Garland became a crucial part of the Canucks' offence this season, finding success on a line with big winger Dakota Joshua, and hitting a career-high in goals (20).

Tocchet has been an important part of his development as a player, Garland said.

“I’ve had some ups and downs here as a player," the winger said. "And I’ve been fortunate to find my game a little bit more this year. He’s obviously had a great year as a coach and we’ve had a great year as a team.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2024.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press