Ex­pe­ri­ence not re­quired

Rookie coaches a grow­ing NHL trend

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - SPORTS - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

Rick Toc­chet is the kind of coach who doesn’t mind if a player calls him at 9 p.m. to share a thought.

He doesn’t ex­pect that to change as he goes from a Pitts­burgh Pen­guins as­sis­tant to head coach of the Ari­zona Coy­otes. Toc­chet has done it be­fore, and his 148 games as an NHL head coach make the 53-year-old one of the more ex­pe­ri­enced hires this off-sea­son as teams look for the next new idea rather than re­cy­cling from the past.

Three va­can­cies were filled by first-timers: the Buf­falo Sabres’ Phil Hous­ley, Florida Pan­thers’ Bob Bough­ner and Van­cou­ver Canucks’ Travis Green.

Toc­chet and the Los An­ge­les Kings’ John Stevens are long­time as­sis­tants with some time run­ning a bench, while the Dal­las Stars’ Ken Hitch­cock and Ve­gas Golden Knights’ Ger­ard Gal­lant rep­re­sent the only sea­soned coaches.

Al­most ev­ery gen­eral man­ager cited com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills as a ma­jor rea­son for pri­or­i­tiz­ing youth over ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s clear for me: (Toc­chet is) one of the best com­mu­ni­ca­tors I’ve come across, not only in hockey but prob­a­bly pro­fes­sion­ally as well,” Coy­otes GM John Chayka said. “He can just re­late to the play­ers. He’s very firm. He can mo­ti­vate. He can be ag­gres­sive in his ap­proach, but he can also be that big brother kind of ap­proach.”

Toc­chet, Hous­ley, Bough­ner, Green, Stevens and Gal­lant all played in the NHL in the 1990s and rep­re­sent the new-school con­cept of a play­ers’ coach, mix­ing pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with ac­count­abil­ity.

Lik­able Jon Cooper took the Tampa Bay Light­ning to the 2015 Stan­ley Cup Fi­nal in his first go-’round, while other ex­per­i­ments like Dal­las Eakins, Claude Noel, Ron Rol­ston and Mike well.

More time is needed to de­ter­mine the suc­cess of some, like the Phil­a­del­phia Fly­ers’ Dave Hak­stol, New Jersey Devils’ John Hynes and Colorado Avalanche’s Jared Bed­nar, but teams are more will­ing than ever to take a risk on coach­ing rook­ies. Ten of the 31 coaches are in their first head jobs in the NHL as some prom­i­nent ex­pe­ri­enced coaches like Lindy Ruff, Jac­ques Martin, Jack Ca­puano and Marc Craw­ford have ac­cepted roles as as­sis­tants.

Florida GM Dale Tal­lon went through an “ex­haus­tive, ex­ten­sive search” be­fore Bough­ner’s in­ter­view blew him away, and Chayka talked to more than 25 coaches be­fore call­ing Toc­chet the best can­di­date by a wide mar­gin.

Kings GM Rob Blake said “there was lit­er­ally no search” as Stevens was the nat­u­ral fit to suc­ceed Dar­ryl Sut­ter, and the Canucks didn’t in­ter­view any­one John­ston didn’t go so but Green, who coached their top mi­nor league af­fil­i­ate for the past four sea­sons.

Buf­falo GM Ja­son Bot­ter­ill said Hous­ley was “uniquely qual­i­fied” for the job based on his play­ing and coach­ing ca­reers. Hockey ex­pe­ri­ence on the ice and at other lev­els may be just as valu­able to ex­ec­u­tives pick­ing coaches.

“I’ve been a player, I’ve been an owner, I’ve been an ex­ec­u­tive,

“I’ve been a head coach, an as­sis­tant coach,” Bough­ner said with a sig­nif­i­cant nod to his time in ju­nior hockey. “I know this league and I know the game and I’m ready for this chal­lenge.”

One of the big­gest chal­lenges in the tran­si­tion from as­sis­tant to head coach is the dif­fer­ent dy­namic with play­ers. Pan­thers cap­tain Derek MacKen­zie had Bough­ner as an as­sis­tant in Colum­bus and con­sid­ered him ap­proach­able but some­one who knew when to “put his foot down.”

CP PHOTO

In this April 26 file photo, Van­cou­ver Canucks pres­i­dent Trevor Lin­den, left, and gen­eral man­ager Jim Ben­ning, right, in­tro­duce the Canucks new head coach Travis Green dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver.

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