The Blackhawks have a long road ahead of them in rebuilding their team from the bottom up. "Ground zero" is a generous location for this team when you consider the grander scope of everything: poor depth, lack of young talent, abuse of the cap, questionable coaching decisions of the past. It's hard to imagine the Blackhawks being back to where they were just seven years ago any time soon. The first step for a young, rebuilding team moving forward, would be to establish who the leading voice of the team is in their head coach.
I will be starting a five part (minimum) series investigating some of the top rumored head coaching candidates for the Blackhawks. What could they bring to the table? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Today we will be starting with former Tampa Bay Lightning and Arizona Coyotes head coach, Rick Tocchet.
Tocchet has been around for a while in the NHL world. He has been met with great praise and success, as well as severe criticism and failure, which is what makes him a fascinating choice for the Blackhawks. He's 58, and been out of coaching since the Coyotes and him agreed to "part ways" at the end of the 2020-2021 pandemic-shortened season. So what makes him an intriguing choice?
Tocchet has really been through the ringer. As a player, he was on the 1992 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but he has also played for teams like the 1996-97 Boston Bruins, worst team in the East. As a coach, he won back to back Stanley Cups with the Penguins again in 2016-2017, but as head coach has missed the playoffs all but one year. He really is a mixed bag.
But in fairness to Tocchet, it hasn't been the easiest road either. His first experience with head coaching came during the 2005 season as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes, when head coach, Wayne Gretzky, stepped down periodically to care for and tend to the passing of his mother. It was a short stint, but he seemed to keep the team "treading water" at least with a record of 2-3-0.
His first long-term shot came with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008. He was hired on as an associate coach earlier that year and served under Barry Melrose, the head coach. Melrose was fired after starting the season 5-7-4 and Tocchet took over as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. The team finished 5th in the Southeast division, good for second to last for worst record in the Eastern Conference.
He continued as head coach of the Lightning for the 2009-2010 season, with significant improvement. The previous season, the Lightning finished the season 19-33-14, good for 52 points. In Tocchet's first full season with the team, the Lightning finished 34-36-12, good for 80 points. That's a lot more winning than just a year prior, but the team still missed the postseason and the Lightning moved on (also due partially to an ownership and regime change).
After a couple seasons away from the NHL, Tocchet was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach where he helped the team win back to back Stanley Cups in 2016-2017. After the second Stanley Cup run, Tocchet became a hot commodity and was hired by the Arizona Coyotes as head coach.
With the Coyotes, he inherited a bottom-dwelling team, and they continued that trend in his first year as coach, when the team finished in last place in the Western Conference. But then there was a turnaround. The Coyotes went 29-41-12 in the 2017-18 season. The next season, they were 6th in the Western Conference, and third in the Wild Card standings, just missing the postseason. They improved to 39-35-8. The next year was a similar story finishing with a respectable record of 33-29-8, jockeying for a playoff spot and landing one during the odd pandemic-affected bubble playoffs. The Coyotes lost in the first round. During the 56-game 2020-2021 season, the Coyotes went 24-26-6, and it was after missing the playoffs again that the team agreed to part ways.
So that's his story, but why would that be advantageous for the Blackhawks?
Despite a complex history, I think Rick Tocchet could be perfect for what the Blackhawks are doing right now with their rebuild. He has been through the highs, he has been through the lows. He knows the exhilaration of winning it all and the crushing disappointment of being worst of the worst. Being able to relate with these players going through this harsh rebuild would be good.
Additionally, if you look at his resume, teams usually improved by his second year with them. The improvement isn't really postseason-caliber, but he is able to move them from the doldrums of the league to "in the mix" at least until the end of the season. He can get his poorly constructed teams to regularly be in the middle of the pack and right around, or just over .500. The Blackhawks aren't looking to win the Stanley Cup next year, or the year after that, or even for a few years after that. But what they definitively need is growth and improvement. If Tocchet can offer that incremental progress, then he will be well worth it.
That being said, I don't think Tocchet would be the head coach for the long haul. He has zero playoff series wins and only one appearance in his tenure as a head coach. When the Blackhawks are ready to compete for the Stanley Cup again, it seems that Tocchet may not be the best candidate. At that point, they may need to move on to someone who has a little more playoff notoriety to their name as a head coach. Someone like Claude Julien, perhaps, who I will profile next.