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A deep dive into Rick Tocchet’s potential game plan for the Canucks

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Photo credit:Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Lachlan Irvine
4 months ago
As the dust begins to settle on one of the most turbulent weeks in Vancouver Canucks history, there’s hockey to be played and a new coaching staff trying to fix a 27th-place team.
Rick Tocchet held his first press conference as Canucks head coach on Sunday, his first practice on Monday, and tonight he’ll coach his first game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
There’s been so much noise around the organization over the week that separating what needs to be done on the ice couldn’t be more difficult. But as hard as it is to do, let’s put a pin in all that for now and focus on the on-ice product.
Tocchet’s debut comes just over a season and a half after being let go from his last gig as the bench boss for the Arizona Coyotes. During his four seasons behind the Coyotes’ bench, Tocchet posted a 125-131-34 record, earning a suboptimal winning percentage of .490 and just one postseason appearance in the 2020 bubble.
Tocchet’s time as head coach of the Coyotes was centred around a strong ‘defence above all’ style of play. The Yotes found their identity by holding opponents into low-scoring affairs with swarming five-man defensive efforts and grinding out victories, thanks to opportunistic scoring and stellar goaltending.
The Canucks’ have been chugging along with a run-and-gun style of play under Bruce Boudreau, and while it’s made them a scoring juggernaut it’s also made them an absolute nightmare in the defensive end. Tocchet’s arrival, along with those of assistants Sergei Gonchar and Adam Foote, is part of a very pointed plan to change that.
And if his first practice was any indication, we’re in for some changes pretty quick.
As Tocchet and the Canucks prepare for their first game together, today we’ll look at some of the changes fans might notice in the final 36 games from defence to penalty killing to scoring.

The Defensive Difference

To say the Canucks defence has been a liability would be the understatement of the season.
Through 46 games the Canucks have allowed 182 goals, second only to Anaheim’s 197. If the front office believes that a lack of structure under Boudreau was the culprit for the team’s struggles in their own end, there’s a lot of pressure on Tocchet to change that.
Yesterday, Elite Prospects’ David St-Louis wrote a detailed breakdown of the differences between Boudreau and Tocchet’s different systems which I highly recommend taking a look at. But here we’ll give you the basic breakdown.
Under Bruce Boudreau, the Canucks have played a very passive game in their own zone and generally allowed teams to enter the defensive zone with ease. The idea was that allowing their opponents to own the perimeter in favour of clogging up the slot area would make working the puck to the front of the net for a shot much harder.
But as their goals allowed would indicate, that was much easier said than done.
On the flip side, Tocchet’s defensive structure in Arizona was centred around activating players to attack the high perimeter. The main draw of this system is how it can limit the amount of time and space a puck carrier has to make a play, which could force an opponent into a turnover or a low danger shot attempt.
The obvious drawback is that it can open up a lot more room near the top of the slot, so if one skater loses his check it can allow for a much more dangerous scoring attempt from the middle of the ice. So having speedy players who’re able to adapt in real time will be crucial to making this work.
One player who might be worth keeping an eye on under Tocchet is Ilya Mikheyev. Across his previous three seasons in Toronto Mikheyev posted extremely strong advanced stats in his own end, and could benefit under a system that allows him to use his speed more to create turnovers and odd man rushes.
Ilya Mikheyev’s advanced stats. Courtesy of Evolving Hockey.

The goalies (still) run the show

If there’s one aspect that won’t change in Tocchet’s defensive philosophy compared to Boudreau’s, it’s the need for stellar goaltending. Because if his time with the Coyotes was any indication, limiting the actual number of scoring chances won’t be part of the game plan.
In his introductory presser, Tocchet recalled how additions in net made it easier for his young roster to find success.
“When we acquired Darcy Kuemper and [Antti] Raanta, who played very well for me, if we can get these guys to play half the net, we can have some kind of structure with those guys and stay in the games, and get those young guys playing important games as the season went on.”
And that’s not an accident. Over Tocchet’s four-year span as Arizona coach, Kuemper and Raanta finished 27th and 41st in the league respectively in High Danger Shots faced at even strength, despite sharing most of the work load.
Kuemper and Raanta both dealt with injury issues throughout their Coyotes tenures, but they also showed a consistent ability to make crucial big saves when healthy. In High Danger Save Percentage, Kuemper posted an .833  save percentage, 17th highest during that span, while Raanta finished 25th with an .826.

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The good news for Tocchet is that he potentially has his goalie already in Thatcher Demko. The bad news is that Demko is currently out with an injury and uncertain return timeline, so it’ll be a while before he returns to action.
In the interim, Tocchet will have to rely on Spencer Martin and Collin Delia, a pair of goaltenders not used to being the backbone of a team’s defensive stability.
“Game management is something that [the players] have to kind of learn. There’s nothing worse when you’re on a rebuilding team, and you’re getting your ass kicked 6-2,” Tocchet said about the importance goaltending plays into re-igniting a team’s confidence.
If Demko can return to his Vezina-caliber form, it might improve their standing overall.

Penalty Kill or Power Kill?

Even strength is one issue. The penalty kill is a beast with a  thousand
Under Tocchet, the Coyotes actually had a pretty stable penalty kill unit. The 2018-19 outfit posted an 85% success rate, which ties them for the fifth best penalty kill during those four years. In fact, all four incarnations finished with at least 80% in that department.
What’s interesting is just how similar the Yotes’ penalty kill looked to the Boudreau-led Canucks version. Both teams played a pretty stagnant box formation that once again tried to limit shots in close, but the Canucks’ PK has been getting feasted on all season.
There’s one crucial difference between the two: the quality of the penalty killers.
The Coyotes’ front office had put an emphasis on acquiring players with strong advanced metrics, which is why defenders like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers were given prominent roles on Tocchet’s PK units. Compare that to the Canucks, who are often operating with Tyler Myers and Luke Schenn taking the bulk of the penalty killing shifts.
The transition from Boudreau’s special teams systems to Tocchet’s will probably take longer to find it’s footing than at even strength. But how much will we actually notice the difference in quality?
If Tocchet is true to his word about taking stars like Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat off the PK to preserve their energy, in favour of using more bottom six players in those roles, it feels like there are only two ways for this to go. It’ll either be a stroke of genius or a critical error; which one will take some time to find out.

The Offensive Elephant in the Room

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the defence needs serious help. But how does a coach improve how a team plays in its own end without any roster changes by the front office?
You dial back the offensive attack.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey wait, isn’t that what got Travis Green in trouble during his last season and a half coaching the Canucks?”, you’d be correct. And early on Tocchet, who just so happens to be a personal friend of Green’s, hasn’t tried to dispel the personal comparison between the two.
“I’m really close to Travis,” Tocchet said. “I’ve talked to him about and everything he said about the market and stuff was great.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Tocchet and Green are the exact same coach. But their philosophies on team play are very similar, especially when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net on one end at the cost of scoring on the other.
The biggest question surrounding Tocchet’s system is how asking the likes of Pettersson, Kuzmenko and Horvat to use more energy in their own zone will affect their respective scoring output. One extremely pertinent case might be that of Tocchet’s lone young star in Arizona, Clayton Keller.
In his rookie season — Tocchet’s first with the Coyotes — Keller scored 23 goals and 65 points, earning him third place in 2018 Calder Trophy voting. Over the next three seasons, Keller struggled to top 17 goals or break the 50 point barrier.
Some of that can be attributed to the bad luck of playing in two COVID-shortened seasons. But the most alarming aspect is how Keller still finished first or second in Coyotes scoring in all of those years, despite taking a step back.
Once Tocchet was replaced by Andre Tourigny behind the bench, Keller immediately put together a 23-goal, 63-point season in 67 games and seems well on his way to break that mark this year.
For the Canucks, their scoring ability has been the main reason their record isn’t a lot worse, and there’s a real concern that any strides Tocchet makes fixing their defensive game will come at the cost of completely drying up their scoring abilities. And to his credit, Tocchet mentioned in his introductory presser how important being able to adapt to coaching the players you have is.
But he also discussed his qualms with a run-and-gun style game, which he referred to as “river hockey”.
“I don’t think it’s fair [to say I’m against] offensive creativity. I know all the deep dives and weak side D go down, I never discouraged that. You just got to make sure that it’s calculated, you know. I don’t like river hockey, you can’t win river hockey,” Tocchet said before referencing a team he felt had found a better balance.
“You look at the Colorado Avalanche. I did their whole series last year with TNT, and the way they adjusted, the way [Nathan] MacKinnon and those guys played down the playoffs was spectacular. Short shifts. I thought [Avalanche coach Jared] Bednar did a hell of a job. I learned a lot from even watching those guys, so that’s kind of my thought process.”
So as Canucks fans gear up for Game One of the Rick Tocchet era, it’s fair to expect to watch hockey games with a lot more intensity in the defensive end and a few less barnburner-type games. But whether or not it will improve or hurt the Canucks chances will be an adventure all by itself.

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