Flashback – Penguins Hire Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet

Rick Tocchet

Rick Tocchet has been a part of three Stanley Cup Championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His departure to accept a new role with a familiar franchise closed the book on a great period in his career.

Jim Rutherford has made very few miscalculations during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Since being hired, he has possessed somewhat of a “midas touch”. Rutherford has made phenomenal trades; impeccable negotiation of deals with undrafted players; and reclaiming “misfits” and “outcasts” from other franchises in the league, and turning them into top calibre talent. He has made those players very wealthy in the process. Just ask Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz.

Flashback – Penguins Hire Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet

If we wind the clocks back to 2014 and re-visit the events that transpired following the collapse of the 3-1 series lead versus the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Second Round, we see one of the first moves that Rutherford made leave an indelible mark in the annals of Pittsburgh Penguins lore. The hiring of head coach Mike Johnston is not easily forgotten.

The dual announcement ushering in Johnston and assistant coach Rick Tocchet, was met with some bewilderment.  Johnston had not coached on a NHL level since 2008 (Associate with Los Angeles) and was still an enigma to many around around the league. At the time, Pascal Dupuis admitted to having to use Google to learn about the man that would be entrusted to lead the Penguins back to the promised land.

Rutherford stated“I feel very strongly that we’ve got the right coach.”

Love him or hate him – The Mike Johnston era ranks amongst one of the most tumultuous times the Penguins faithful have faced since 2004. 

Tocchet Comes on Board

The other announcement, the hiring of Rick Tocchet as assistant coach, provided an equally puzzling scenario.

Tocchet had been toiling on the Philadelphia Flyers broadcast team since his departure from head coaching duties with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008. This matched the the six-year absence from an NHL bench that Mike Johnston had also accumulated.

One of the Key ingredients the Penguins ownership group felt was missing from the Penguins roster post-2009 was Grit. Tocchet no stranger to that side of the game. He was brought in specifically to be the conduit between coaches and players.

When the Penguins began shopping for new a new head coach, the only non negotiable aspect of any potential deal was the inclusion of Rick Tocchet on the coaching staff. Most coaches like to make their own personnel decisions. Taking a post with nearly half of the staff in place, was surely enough to dissuade a candidate or two from accepting the position.

Essentially Johnston provided the pedigree and Tocchet provided the experience.

From the outside, it appears neither man had the full trust of Rutherford; or anyone else capable of pulling the triggers. They were both thrown into a rather unique situation.

Johnston out and Sullivan In

Mike Johnston would survive a season and a half, behind the Penguins bench. It is anyone’s guess, as to the circumstances surrounding the inability for the team to adapt to the system that Johnston tried to employ. For one reason or another, Tocchet was impervious to the fallout from the Johnston hiring. He remained unscathed when the successor to the Penguins head coaching Throne was named – Mike Sullivan.

Tocchet has been revered by the players he coached and was instrumental in helping the Penguins win improbable back to back Stanley Cups.

Pittsburgh has become a redemtion city of sorts. Rick Tocchet stands as of the finest examples of Jim Rutherford’s reclamation projects. He looks to have a very bright future ahead with the Arizona Coyotes.

A New Opportunity

Jeff Chakya, general manager of the Coyotes offered this glaring endorsement of Tocchet.

“He’s one of the best communicators I’ve come across not only in hockey but probably professionally as well,” Chakya said. “I think 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 with our young players and I think that’s going to be helpful moving forward.”

Tocchet has a clear idea of the style he wants his team to play, “He wants to play fast. He wants to play aggressive. He wants to dictate time and space,” Chakya said.

“We had a lot of coaches come through. They will all say something similar. I think he had a real plan of how to do it. He had concrete examples of what that means based off his time in Pittsburgh and some more ideas of what he’s maybe looking to do moving forward.”

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