Usually, an assistant coach’s departure is inconsequential.
Not so with Tocchet.
Tocchet is a rarity. Tocchet takes the credibility and dynamic personality he wielded as a player and translates it to the coaching profession. It’s tough for a coach (let alone an assistant coach) to be a leader. But Tocchet did his level best to lead, and it meant a lot to the Penguins.
More specifically, Tocchet was the “Kessel whisperer.”
Phil Kessel can be frustrating to coach. Kessel has his own vision of the game. It’s a successful vision, but it involves minimal physical contact, almost never blocking shots and, occasionally, not shooting enough.
You can tell Kessel what to do: For example, head coach Mike Sullivan constantly told Kessel to put more pucks on net.
But Kessel won’t necessarily do as he’s told: For example, Kessel’s shot total this past season (229) was 45 shots lower than last year’s and Kessel’s lowest for an 82-game schedule since his second NHL season of 2007-08. Bizarre for a player with five seasons of 30 goals or more.
Kessel scored 23 goals this past campaign, his fewest for an 82-game season since ’07-08.
If you win the Stanley Cup, none of that is a problem.
If you don’t, it becomes a problem.
Kessel’s style does no damage in the locker room. He’s beloved as a teammate.
But Sullivan was often less than pleased with Kessel. Tocchet, however, served as a buffer and conduit between Sullivan and Kessel, and did his best to steer Kessel in the preferred direction. He also talked Sullivan off the ledge regarding Kessel.
If Tocchet leaves, who does that?
“(Tocchet) just gets it,” Kessel told the Buffalo News when Tocchet was rumored as a candidate for the Sabres’ head coaching job, since filled by Phil Housley. “He understands what it’s like to play the game, to be a player. He makes it fun. I don’t want to see him go.”
If Tocchet leaves, the potential for problems between Sullivan and Kessel is greatly magnified (although far from guaranteed).
It’s not all about Kessel, though.
Tocchet is a throwback, no-nonsense coach, light on analytics and high on old-school hockey values. He has a knack for knowing when to kick a player up the backside, or throw a sympathetic arm around his shoulder.
Tocchet was a big part of winning two consecutive Stanley Cups. As important as an assistant coach can be. The same can be said of Jacques Martin.
Sullivan stirs the drink, of course. But he’s been surrounded by a quality staff. When Tocchet leaves, a big adjustment will be required.
Joe Mullen is available. The ex-Penguin has been coaching since 2000, and recently finished an 11-year stint with the Philadelphia organization.
But this is Sullivan’s first chance to hire, so employing someone with a personal connection is much more probable than employing someone with a Penguins connection. Mullen isn’t near as dynamic as Tocchet, anyway.
Whoever Sullivan does get won’t have that connection with Kessel. Tocchet got through to Kessel like few coaches have.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).