After four seasons away from the NHL, Rick Tocchet is back behind a bench. He's also in a familiar place.
One of the NHL's quintessential power forwards of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tocchet was a major part of the Penguins' Stanley Cup in 1992 playing alongside Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens on the team's top line. While he only spent parts of three seasons with the Penguins, his rugged and productive style made him one of the most popular players in franchise history.
After retiring as a player in 2002, Tocchet embarked on a coaching career which eventually saw him assume the head coaching duties of a dysfunctional Tampa Bay Lightning franchise in 2008-09. Tocchet had some individual successes in terms of helping develop a young Steven Stamkos and getting production out of Steve Downie, but in parts of two seasons with Tampa Bay, Tocchet had a lackluster 53-69-26 record and never reached the playoffs. That resulted in him being fired in 2010.
After that, Tocchet's only interaction with the NHL over the next four seasons was as a member of the media doing some television work for CSN in Philadelphia.
This past offseason, Tocchet returned to coaching when he was hired as an assistant with the Penguins. His primary duties include overseeing the forwards as well as the power play.
Earlier today, he talked about the role of power forwards and his return to coaching.
There have been some comparition to Sidney Crosby playing with Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz to how Mario Lemieux played with yourself and Kevin Stevens in the early 1990s. Do you see any parallels?
"I love guys like Hornqvist and Kunitz because I love the way they see the game. As much as you call them power forwards, they’re smart guys. They go to the areas to score. They’re willing to the tough areas to score. They’re not scared. You play with a guy like Crosby, they know their job. Playing with Mario or if you play with a Crosby, if you know your job, it’s going to those hard areas, those dangerous areas. Whether [it’s] a give and go, whether it’s getting loose pucks and getting them to those types of players, you’re going to be successful. They know what their job is. They don’t try to stretch it to something they’re not."
What's different about being a power forward in 2014 compared to 1992?
"That’s a really good question. Oh man. You’ve got me on that one. When you look at the guys back in the day, when you had Cam Neely, [Brendan] Shanahan, those guys, they probably fought a little bit more maybe. I shouldn’t even say that. It’s basically the same thing. It’s the ability to score. Being able to be tough. Being able to do the little things I think is something that is important as that type of role player. Being able to be there when it’s, 1-1, taking a hit to make a play or scoring that big goal."
You (210 pounds) and Stevens (230 pounds) were each well over 200 pounds as players. Kunitz (195 pounds) and Hornqvist (189 pounds) are not. What's different about being a power forward in terms of size?
"You’ve got to skate. Obviously the guys today, they are better skaters. If you’re going to be a big guy, you’ve got to get up and down the ice. If you’re going to play with a Crosby, you’ve got to get down the ice with him. If he’s got to wait for you because you’re a big guy, it’s probably not going to work. Today’s game, power forwards do have to get up and down the ice pretty quickly."
What is it like being a coach in the NHL again after four seasons away from the game at this level?
"I’m having a blast. It’s fun. I’m excited to the day-to-day stuff that I missed the last four years. Getting to know certain guys, working with certain players. I enjoy that. I’m actually learning from those guys too. I get tested whether it’s a questions about X’s and O’s, a question about how do you approach a game this way. It really stretches my mind. I love that."
Are there any major differences in how the game is played or coached compared to your time with the Lightning?
"Not really. There’s probably more emphasis on – and it’s the most overused [term] in hockey now – puck possession. Of course everyone wants puck possession. But if your teams is not activating the defensemen, if your team is not playing as five-man units, there’s some system where the defensemen might be leading the rush. You can’t be scare of that just as long as you’re responsible defensively. I would say basically the activation of the defensemen [and] the creativity in the offensive zone with everybody. Not just three guys."
You're in charge of the power play. Right now Christian Ehrhoff isn't on the first unit. There have been times where Crosby wasn't even on the first unit of this team's power play. Is there a juggling act for you to keep everyone happy?
"When things are good, everybody’s happy. If you don’t score on the power play, the big thing for us is to make sure stick with our game plan. Don’t go on your own program. As much as you want all talented players and creativity, there still has to be structure to a power play. When a team scouts you or when there’s adversity, that’s when structure really helps. You want the creativity but you want to make sure we all stay together."
You were an assistant coach with the Avalanche in the mid-2000s with some pretty stacked teams. Are there any similarities to this team?
"Oh yeah. We had [Joe] Sakic and [Peter] Forsberg running the power play. You had Robby Blake with the big [shot]. [Milan] Hejduk and [Alex] Tanguay. All those guys. The same kind of talent level. It’s a lot easier when you have your best players listen. They listen to the structure part. If they’re on their own program, you’re in for a long year. But with the group we have, they listen and I like that."
Do you still harbor any hopes of being a head coach in the NHL?
"Yeah. Listen, I’m learning and enjoying myself right now. I haven’t even thought of that. I’ve learned a lot the last two months. I feel that I’ve got a lot to give too. If you’re scared to say that you’re learning and you don’t know everything, you probably won’t be a head coach some day."
(Photo: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)