Canucks: How Rick Tocchet keeps pushing the right motivational buttons

Tocchet asked his players for fitness, focus, faith in the process. The Canucks are first overall and the head coach should be a Jack Adams Award finalist.

The appointment could have come with a disclaimer: “Be careful what you wish for.”

After all, three head coaches in 15 months? Just one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons? What was he thinking?

Tocchet could have issued his own disclaimer: “Just watch me.”

Today, the detail-oriented Tocchet is a strong Jack Adams Award candidate as top NHL coach because he only asks three things from his first-place club that sports an impressive 35-12-6 record.

Fitness, focus and faith in the process were going to turn around a franchise that was more pretender than contender. And look at it now.

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Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet drew up the plan and delegated authority to his assistants to turn the club from pretenders to NHL contenders.Photo by Jeff Vinnick /NHLI via Getty Images

It didn’t happen overnight. It has taken a year to drill home his “non-negotiable” staples of systems play, accountability and adaptability. He was going to make players uncomfortable to exact maximum and consistent performances.

There was tough love. There were scratches. There was working in partnership with the leadership group to plan practices, and even days off because Tocchet thinks “we” and not “me.”

What became critical was the buy-in. Even though Tocchet commanded instant respect as a productive player, coach and Stanley Cup champion, these are different times. Players often have their own agendas.

How would he deal with the combustible J.T. Miller? How could he get Brock Boeser to become a complete player? How was he going to get Conor Garland to be part of the solution, and push Dakota Joshua to reach his potential? 

And when did he start to see real commitment after a 20-12-4 run in supplanting the fired Bruce Boudreau?

“At the end of last year and the summer with a lot of conversations and checking and one-on-one meetings,” said Tocchet. “That was a big part of it. It wasn’t just a snap (of the fingers) in camp. But the payers were asking for team systems. Right away, that’s the buy-in.

“It helped me out. I was doing the right thing.”

In his first 80 games, he amassed a 49-23-8 record for 106 points and a .633 winning percentage. He earned league-wide plaudits and an All-Star Game coaching honour.

“He helped me so much when I was young in Arizona to become the player I am and be patient with me,” said Garland.

“I wasn’t the easiest to coach. You think scoring goals is all that matters. He taught me to play both sides, and he has a lot more ahead of him, too.”

Tocchet taught Garland to play the game and not worry about helping to ease the club’s salary cap conundrum at the outset of this season and perhaps considering moving on.

“He tried to block out the noise and keep me day to day,” added Garland. “Those first six games were pretty tough on me — especially that first road trip. Any time I was in a tough spot, I could lean on him and guys in the room to understand the situation I was in.”

Tocchet also saw a lot of himself in Miller, and let it be known. That resonated with the feisty forward who knew of the 45 goals, 81 points and 183 penalty minutes Tocchet amassed in the 1988-89 season with the intimidating Philadelphia Flyers.

“I watched clips when I was a kid and he’s a guy I really respect,” said Miller, who along with teammate Elias Pettersson, were tied for fifth in league scoring Monday. “He had the type of game I like to play in being hard to play against. It’s what I’m trying to emulate.”

Boeser invested in a total game and elite fitness to become as reliable without the puck as he can be with it. Health and happy outlook translated into a career-high four goals on opening night, 13 in his first 16 games, and a career-high 30 goals heading into Tuesday’s test in Chicago.

“They (Canucks) asked me to change and knew a guy in Minnesota, who was an NHL trainer,” said Boeser. “We did more turf stuff. We did hill days most of August. A lot of sprinting and agility, and I feel strong and quicker. I’m moving better.”

Joshua could have been in jeopardy of a roster spot at camp if he didn’t adhere to Tocchet’s demands of striving to reach his potential as a big and commotion-causing winger. 

The results have been amazing. A career-high 12 goals, second in league hits with 192, second-unit power play time, and presence on a vastly improved penalty kill. He owes it all to Tocchet.

“This is a business of wins,” said Joshua. “There are no gifts being handed out, and you don’t want to let him (Tocchet) or the team down.”

Joshua has helped turned the third line with Teddy Blueger and Garland into a disruptive forechecking force that creates turnovers and scoring opportunities. And creativity in what the trio should be named — The Joshua Three, Run-D-T-C, and The Life Line.

“I don’t really like all the hoopla,” stressed Joshua. “We’re not coming up with one (name) because that comes with expectations. We’d rather nobody knew about us.

“I just want to keep going about my job and not get caught up in what’s going on.”

Tocchet would love that.

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