I think Rick Tocchet is quickly leaping of the ranks of my favorite Lightning coaches of all time. He still trails Torts by a considerable margin, but he has left Steve Ludzick and Jaques Demers in his dust. I know what you’re thinking, “The Bolts are losing and when a team is losing you have to blame the coach. He’s lost the locker room!”
First, allow me to digress. Whenever some random commentor posts that a coach has “lost the locker room” I have to laugh. How does some anonymous fan with no relation to the team, no relation to the players or coach know what goes on behind closed doors? It’s such a meaningless phrase. Players don’t have to like their coaches, as a matter of fact most successful coaches have just a touch of ass-holeness in them. So stop saying that.
Blaming Tocchet is the easy way out. I could probably kick out an article about how it looks like the players don’t respect him, how he makes bad decisions (Matt Smaby is the answer! Matt Smaby will solve all of their problems. Matt Smaby is Tim Tebow on skates!), and how he just has the job because he works cheap and Len Barrie owes him money.
The problem is I don’t believe any of that. I don’t agree with everything he does (most notably the power play philosophy. I think their current system cuts off too much of the ice, but that’s a story for a different day). I do, however, think he’s doing a better job then he’s getting credit for.
As I type this, seven minutes before the Bolts take the ice against Edmonton, the team sits at a record of 11-10-8. They are two points out of the playoff race and 14 points behind Washington for the division lead. The chances of catching the Caps are pretty slim, it looks like the Caps do have a solid goaltender this year as well as secondary scoring. That’s something that they’ve lacked in the last few seasons.
Last season at this point the team had a record of 6-12-8 and wouldn’t win their 10th game for another two weeks. The team had fired Barry Melrose a month earlier and were just starting their roster shakeup that would last all season long. The Vinny trade talks were in full bloom and a sense of chaos reigned in the ownership box.
This season he is coaching a team that has seen has had it’s entire blue line reconstructed from the ground up. The two players that were supposed to lead the offense have nine goals - combined. The preseason goalie has been shaky at best and one of the top four defenseman has been missing for the last month.
Despite that they are still in the hunt for a playoff spot, a position that many critics didn’t think they would come close to this year. Yet the cry of “Fire the Coach!” still echoes across the blog-o-sphere.
So why am I taking the contrarian view? ‘Cause I’m a trouble maker of course! Actually, it’s because of something I saw on Monday night. After having a strong first half of the game the team almost on a whole faded. Instead of playing out the game and rotating his normal lines, Tocchet cut his bench in half and rotated two lines - the bottom two lines of his roster.
It was Steve Downie, Paul Szczechura, James Wright, and Zenon Konopka getting the extra playing time while Lecavalier, Tanguay, Stamkos and St Louis sat on the bench and felt shame. A lot of coaches say that they’re going to make players accountable, but rarely follow through. Tocchet followed through.
Not only that, he drastically shuffled the lines. Lecavalier was reunited with St Louis and Ryan Malone. Stamkos was paired with Szczechura and the human dynamo Steve Downie. Alex Tanguay was demoted to a line with Jeff Halpern and James Wright.
Since corporal punishment has been outlawed and a coach can’t fine a player for lazy play the only thing Tocchet can really do is to bench players who aren’t performing. During the past week the players that weren’t performing were the top lines. Even second year sensation Steven Stamkos has seen his play drop off in recent days. Vinny stopped skating and takes lazy penalties. St Louis has been a mess on the point on the power play and is stuck in a nine game goalless streak.
Kenopka, Wright and Downie (dubbed the AHL line by my buddy Big Mike) had been their best line. Their only problem is they can’t score, no matter how long they keep the puck in the zone. I think they could have an empty net and would manage to rattle it off a post, but they play hard. They cause turnovers and dig in the corners for pucks.
What must really be galling for Tocchet is the lack of offensive toughness that the top lines display. As a player who was a grinder, hard-nosed, worked in the trenches, etc., etc. to have to watch players who drift on the periphery of the circles, who dish off passes when they’re in front of the net must be extraordinarily difficult.
Why goalies even think that Lecavalier is going to shoot when he’s on a two-on-one is baffling. Vincent has admitted that he’s lost confidence and it shows. Even in the game against Edmonton (where the reshuffled line scored a minute into the game) he dished off the puck instead of shooting it. The good news is that Marty fired it at the net (and scored) instead of trying to pass it back to Lecavalier.
We might be seeing the evolution of Lecavalier. Instead a 50 goal scorer perhaps he’s going to be a premier set up man a la Joe Thornton. That will be fine as long as he’s paired with someone who’s willing to actually shoot off of his set ups.
That’s the problem Tocchet is facing right now - finding the right chemistry for his offense. The chances of a trade bringing in any new blood is remote. He is going to have to make do with the team he has, a team that isn’t really that bad. The defense seems to have settled into a steady, if not physical, presence. The goaltending is solid and there is talent on the front lines. If they can stay in the race with Malone and Stamkos scoring half of their goals just think how they will do when St Louis shakes off his current slump?
Oh and for all of those braying “Fire Tocchet” it’s not going to happen. The club is already paying two ex-coaches, I wouldn’t bet on them paying a third.