In Vancouver, Rick Tocchet Walked Into a Minefield and Emerged as NHL Coach of the Year

in vancouver, rick tocchet walked into a minefield and emerged as nhl coach of the year

Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet talks with J.T. Miller during a Nov. 15, 2023, game against the New York Islanders. Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

When the NHL Broadcasters cast their votes for coach of the year, they tend to favor bench bosses who engineer the biggest turnarounds for their teams.

That’s the case again in 2024 when Jack Adams Award winner Rick Tocchet improved the Vancouver Canucks by a league-leading 26 points in the regular-season standings.

Ballots are cast before the playoffs begin, but Tocchet's journey to within one game of the Western Conference final made for an impressive follow-up.

Even in defeat, this season's Canucks are all about resilience and accountability. While Elias Pettersson remains under the microscope, and there's ongoing concern about Thatcher Demko's durability, many of the sharp critiques following Vancouver's key players have been swapped for bouquets.

As J.T. Miller recently pointed out, he was seeing his jersey tossed on the ice at Rogers Arena not so long ago. Now, his intensity is regarded as his superpower, and the fans chant his name with everything they have.

Don't forget: Tocchet was not exactly welcomed with open arms when he arrived in Vancouver in January 2023. Fans were showing all the love to his predecessor, Bruce Boudreau, as he walked the plank.

Boudreau delivered his own brand of hope and inspired the memorable ‘Bruce, There It Is!’ chants from the vocal fans as he coached the Canucks from 28th place in the league up to 18th after replacing Travis Green in December 2021.

But Boudreau came on board four days before Jim Rutherford was hired to engineer the next Canucks era — first as interim GM, then as team president. And just four months after taking the reins, Rutherford fired a shot across the bow when he indicated that he wanted his coach to bring more ‘structure’ at the Canucks' season-ending presser in May 2022.

Of course, Tocchet had been an assistant coach with Rutherford’s Penguins during their Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017 and had earned a reputation for being able to bring out the best in players. Starting in 2021, his gig as an analyst with NHL on TNT also made him more visible, launching him back into the coaching pool after he’d had only limited success during previous stints in the top job in Tampa Bay and Arizona.

On the 32 Thoughts Podcast this week, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Tocchet assumed he'd only get one more chance to get it right, so he was picky when choosing his landing spot. Friedman said Tocchet turned down advances from Dallas and Winnipeg before agreeing to join Rutherford in Vancouver.

When he arrived, the Canucks were once again back down in 27th place in the standings.

Fans greeted him with skepticism at best, hostility at worst. And eight days after his arrival, another firestorm was ignited when Rutherford and Patrik Allvin traded well-liked Canucks captain Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders as he approached unrestricted free agency.

Last week, Tocchet told Mike Zeisberger of NHL.com, "I'm not going to lie. For the first couple of days, I was asking myself: 'What the hell did I do?' "

But Tocchet quickly assembled an all-star support staff — adding Cup winners Adam Foote and Sergei Gonchar to help with the back end while retaining assistant coach Mike Yeo and goalie whisperer Ian Clark, as well as keeping Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the ice in player development roles.

The turnaround began immediately but didn’t take full effect until this season. Vancouver’s .665 points percentage was the tip of the iceberg. Tocchet’s biggest achievement was drawing out career-best seasons from across his lineup, highlighted by 40 goals from Brock Boeser, 92 points from Quinn Hughes, 103 points from Miller, a Vezina Trophy nomination for Demko and a breakout campaign from Dakota Joshua.

Vancouver started the year with that 8-1 win over the ‘Cup or Bust’ Edmonton Oilers. Onlookers waited for them to falter, but they didn’t, injecting a healthy dose of self-belief into their team culture along the way.

On Wednesday, Tocchet became the third Vancouver coach to win the Jack Adams Award, following Pat Quinn in 1992 and Alain Vigneault in 2007.

Like Tocchet, Quinn was in his first full season behind the Canucks' bench when he won, having coached 26 games in 1990-91. Vigneault was in his first year with the team.

Both of them also lost in the second round of the playoffs in their Jack Adams years — Quinn’s group to the Oilers in six games and Vigneault’s to the Ducks in five.

But it wasn't long before both those coaches got Vancouver to the Stanley Cup final. In Quinn’s case, it was two years later, in 1994. Vigneault needed four years before the run of 2011.

These days, the coaching carousel is spinning faster than ever. But with a strong foundation and some long-sought-after organizational stability, Tocchet has shown that he could get the Canucks back to the top of the mountain.

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