Canucks' Rick Tocchet among new coaches making an impact in leading teams to NHL playoffs

Rick Tocchet barely had a chance to get accustomed to the Pacific time zone when the newly hired Canucks coach wondered what exactly he had just gotten himself into in late January 2023.

Four days and two games into his tenure, Tocchet recalled the feeling of dread he experienced standing on a Vancouver street corner at 3 a.m. after the team returned home from Seattle following a 6-1 loss, in which the coach referred to the Canucks being “soft.”

“I felt like I got hit by a bus,” Tocchet told The Associated Press this week. “And actually, my assistant coach, Sergei Gonchar, pulled me aside and said, `Listen, we just got here. You just got to relax.'"

The memory stands as a moment of validation for Tocchet, who at the time was second-guessing his decision to leave what he called “a nice comfy job” in broadcasting to take on a Canucks team on its third coach in three seasons.

Some 15 months later, the 60-year-old Tocchet is a Jack Adams’ coach of the year candidate for guiding Vancouver to 50 wins — a 12-win jump from last season — and its first division title in 11 years.

“It's been a long road to this point of making the playoffs from that second game, and training camp and a lot of different things that hit this team,” Tocchet said. “That’s what I’m most proud about is how we overcame all of that stuff.”

In completing his first full season in Vancouver, Tocchet is not alone among new coaches making a difference. Of the 16 teams entering the NHL playoffs this weekend, seven feature coaches who are in their first full year or hired as midseason replacements.

The group includes first-time NHL coaches such as Washington’s Spencer Carbery, Edmonton’s Kris Knoblauch and Jim Hiller in Los Angeles. The more experienced group is headed by Peter Laviolette with the New York Rangers, the Islanders' Patrick Roy and Nashville’s Andrew Brunette.

Each faced the challenge of having little time to stamp their identities on teams coming off playoff seasons — the Rangers, Islanders, Kings and Oilers — or rebuilding.

“Being an underdog, you kind of wear it and you’re proud of it,” said Burnette, who guided the Predators to a 99-point finish, their best since posting 100 in winning the Central Division in 2018-19. “Usually there’s no better motivation than proving people wrong. And maybe we wear that a little bit. I’ve worn that my whole playing career, and I continue to wear it in my coaching career.”

Though Brunette led the Panthers to the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22 in an interim capacity after Joel Quenneville’s resignation a month into the season, questions remained over how much he influenced the team’s success, especially after not being retained following the season.

Brunette took over the retooling Predators, featuring a mix of veterans and youngsters, who suddenly discovered their groove during a franchise-record 16-0-2 run from Feb. 17 to March 26.

“He deserves a ton of credit,” Predators captain Roman Josi said.

“It wasn’t an easy year in the beginning. And he came in with a plan. He came in with a system and the way he wanted us to play, and there’s probably nights where we didn’t execute it,” Josi added. “His patience was amazing.”

On Long Island, Roy replaced Lane Lambert in taking over an experienced but under-performing Islanders team that was 19-15-11 in January. Though New York experienced several ups and downs — including an 0-5-1 skid in March — the Isles closed with a 10-2-1 run to finish third in the Metropolitan Division.

The most notable change in New York’s play was an improvement in 5-on-5 situations. According to Natural Stat Trick, New York outscored its opponents 77-65 while 5-on-5 under Roy as opposed to being outscored 93-89 under Lambert.

“We’ve been more consistent though the game. We’re not having the lulls that we had,” captain Anders Lee said. “We’re not putting ourselves in a hole or chase the game a little bit to come back.”

In Washington, Carbery maintained a sense of calm positivity to settle a Capitals team that endured numerous peaks and valleys — and outscored by a 36-goal margin — to secure the East's final playoff spot.

Carbery described his approach as a give-and-take with a mix of veterans, led by Alex Ovechkin, and developing youngsters, while adapting to take into account the team’s strengths and deficiencies.

“I think it’s just you adapt as you go and you figure it out,” said Carbery, a former Maple Leafs assistant who previously coached the Capitals AHL team in Hershey. “It’s morphed a little bit, but I don’t think the message has changed.”

In Vancouver, Tocchet can’t overstate the value of the three-month head start he had last year.

“I honestly don’t know if we would be in this position. Who’s to say, but the 30 games were huge for me,” he said as Vancouver prepares to face Nashville.

“It’s tough to describe, because I want to be happy. But also, I’m guarded,” Tocchet said, of reaching the playoffs. “I can’t just be walking around and not recognizing what we did. I think that’s really important that I show them that we did a hell of a job here. Enjoy it. But we got another plateau to go here.”


AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, and AP freelance writer Denis Gorman, in New York, contributed.