Published by hockeybuzz.com, 5-7-2017
"Discipline, structure and communication" were key words uttered more than once at Terry Pegula's press conference on the firing of his GM and coach a couple of weeks back. Pegula also added in "character" as another of his Sabres pillars of the Sabres moving forward. Such was the mandate from the owner of an NHL team that ended the 2016-17 season in disarray.
As the GM search drama continues with Pegula's Sabres, word on the street is that the Buffalo may be hiring two people from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization--AGM Jason Botterill and present assistant coach, Rick Tocchet.
Much has been said about Botterill as Buffalo's potential new GM but Tocchet is a new entry into the coaching search.
Tocchet certainly has the resume as an NHL player. He scored 952 points in 1144 NHL games, had 109 points (48+61) in 1992-93, played with and against some of the greats of that era and was on the Penguins 1992 Stanley Cup winning team. He also had 2972 penalty minutes ranking him 10th all-time, and it should be noted that his .832 points/game ranked him tops of any player in the top-20 on that list.
A former sixth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers (1983) Tocchet was a tough customer on the ice who could score as well and he carried on in the tradition of Flyers greats by winning the Bobby Clarke Trophy (1990.) According to HockeyFights.com, Tocchet was in 171 career fights including 15 in the post season and according to his Wiki page Tocchet is the NHL's leader in Gordie Howe hat tricks which is a goal, an assist and a fight in one game. Tocchet had 18, one ahead of Brendan Shanahan, who is now the President of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brian Sutter.
Tocchet was a helluva player who had a rough time coaching his first go-round. He took over for Barry Melrose as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in November, 2008 and was on the bench the following season before getting canned by new Lightning owner Jeffery Vinik in 2010. He had a record of 53-69-26, which may have been the result of him being a newbie coach trying to get his footing. Whether his firing was because of his record and/or because the new owner the wanted to bring in his own guy, he did leave a good impression upon his players after his short stint in Tampa.
From an April 12, 2010 Tampa Bay Times piece on his firing, author Damian Cristodero said "Tocchet, with a hands-on approach, gets credit for helping center Steven Stamkos to grow to his potential and for setting volatile right wing Steve Downie on the right course." In the case of Stamkos, Melrose, who's tenure in Tampa lasted all of 16 games, got into a feud with ownership saying that the 2008 first-overall pick wasn't ready for the NHL while owner Len Barrie was said to have been meddling while trying to get his franchise player into favorable positions on the ice. Stamkos went from 46 points in that tumultuous rookie season to 95 points the next season under Tocchet including 51 goals which tied Sidney Crosby for the league lead that year.
Downie was more noted for his abrasive style of play than anything else up until Tocchet became head coach. According to Cristodero, Downie had a "breakout year" under Tocchet's stewardship with 22 goals and was a team-best plus-14.
Lingering in the background, however, were criminal charges against Tocchet in 2006 for being a part of a "huge gambling ring" in New Jersey, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. That story "became even bigger when authorities said that Janet Jones, the wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, and several current NHL players placed bets with the ring."
According to his Wiki page, Tocchet "pleaded guilty to conspiracy and promoting gambling" on May 25, 2007 and on August 7 he was sentenced to two years probation "in exchange for his plea." An investigation by the NHL found that the betting did not involve the league and on February 6, 2008 the NHL announced that Tocchet was "reinstated, and would serve as assistant coach the next day, exactly two years after taking a leave of absence."
It's been nearly a decade since that incident and with "character" being one of Pegula's apparent four pillars to build his team with, we're not sure if that would disqualify Tocchet, but would make for an interesting angle were Tocchet to be hired. At least when it comes to the "character" mandate handed down by Pegula.
However, from a hockey perspective, with Tocchet's style of play during a long, successful career, and with his apparent ability to reach players as diverse as Stamkos and Downie while head coach, he may be a good candidate to guide Buffalo through this difficult phase. Tocchet should be well respected in the Sabres dressing room and that might be the most important aspect of his hire at this juncture, should be he the guy. As an example, Jack Eichel and Evander Kane are two talents that seemingly need a coach like that to unflinchingly look them in the eye, and with a wealth of experience in hockey and in life backing his words, tell them straight up how he sees it.
Whether Tocchet can actually coach or not is the big question but getting the players respect is a huge hurdle that could go a long way towards winning more. It would seem as if he could have the discipline and structure aspects of Pegula's edict covered and perhaps through his checkered past Tocchet will be able to reach those who those who's character might be in question. Which is a good thing for a disjointed team like the Sabres who have a lot of talent that's just waiting to break out.