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Tocchet won't receive welcome mat from Penguins

Coyotes coach vows 'to keep pounding away' with Arizona after helping Pittsburgh win Stanley Cup twice

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Rick Tocchet doesn't expect the Pittsburgh Penguins to take it easy on him when he returns to PPG Paints Arena for the first time as coach of the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET: ATTSN-PT, FS-A, NHL.TV).

As an assistant under coach Mike Sullivan, Tocchet played a key role in helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup the past two seasons and forged strong relationships with many of their star players, including centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and forward Phil Kessel. Tocchet will receive his 2017 Stanley Cup ring before the game, but knows it will be all business after that.

"I'm looking forward to my ring, yeah," Tocchet said. "It'll be fun to see [people], but I know once 7 o'clock starts, it's Coyotes against Penguins because I know [Sullivan]. He's going to coach his [rear end] off. So we've got to be ready."

Tocchet and Sullivan exchange texts occasionally and they'll be glad to see each other, but as Sullivan said, "I know he's got his own challenges with his team. We're more concerned about ours right now."

Tocchet's challenge is far different from Sullivan's. Most teams would love to have the Penguins' problems, searching for consistency in their play after winning back-to-back championships. 

Tocchet, 53, essentially is starting from scratch with the young Coyotes, whose roster includes seven players age 23 or younger. 

There are some promising blocks to build around, including center Clayton Keller, the 19-year-old who leads NHL rookies with 11 goals and 17 points; forwards Max Domi, 22, and Brendan Perlini, 21; center Christian Dvorak, 21, and injured defenseman Jakob Chychrun, 19. But the Coyotes have struggled to finish games and are off to a 2-12-2 start, including a 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Monday.

Video: ARI@WSH: Keller steals puck and buries wrister

Despite scoring first in 12 of their 16 games, the Coyotes are 2-8-2 in those 12. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening 6:42 against the Capitals before getting into penalty trouble and allowing Washington to come back. 

On the positive side, the Coyotes are starting to get some results from their efforts even if they have yet to win a game in regulation. They are 2-2-1 in their past five games after opening the season with an 11-game losing streak (0-10-1).

"There's some good things and there's some stuff that we're a young team, we have to learn," Tocchet said. "Sometimes when you're tired, it's like my old buddy Mike Sullivan said, 'You can't be tired.' In these situations, you can't be tired. You can't give. Winners don't give. 

"We're going to keep the process, keep pounding away."

Tocchet seems to be reminding himself as much as his players that the Coyotes are going through this process and, hopefully, these lessons they learn now will pay off later. Losing can be discouraging, but Tocchet has managed to keep the mood upbeat.

"He comes to the rink positive every single day, no matter the result or how bad we played or how good we played," Keller said. "He comes to the rink with the same attitude every day and just wants to get better."

This is Tocchet's second chance as an NHL coach and he's determined to make the most of it. His first came with the Tampa Bay Lightning, when he took over for Barry Melrose 16 games into 2008-09.

The Lightning went 53-69-26 under Tocchet before he was replaced by Guy Boucher following the 2009-10 season. After trying his hand as a television analyst on Philadelphia Flyers broadcasts, Tocchet got back into coaching in 2014 with Pittsburgh.

Tocchet spent three of his 18 NHL seasons as a player with the Penguins and won the Stanley Cup with them in 1992. In 1,144 career games with the Flyers, Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Capitals and Coyotes, he had 952 points (440 goals, 512 assists) and 2,972 penalty minutes.

Tocchet's ability to relate to star players served him well with the Penguins. Kessel came to Pittsburgh in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015 with a reputation for not always getting along with his coaches, but bonded with Tocchet, who helped Sullivan bring out the best in him.

"He's a good guy. We're buddies," Kessel said. "We get along well. I think we like the same kind of things and when he was here we had a good relationship."

When Tocchet was with the Penguins, Crosby would send him late-night texts asking, "You up?" and they'd talk about hockey and life. Those conversations ended when Tocchet took over the Coyotes, but Tocchet said Crosby texted him recently simply to say, "Hang in there."

That kind of relationship with arguably the best player in the game carries weight with the Coyotes. Tocchet admitted he probably talked "too much" about Crosby and the Penguins initially. 

But after he cut back on it, Keller, Domi and some of the other young players started coming to him with questions.

"It's mostly the players engaging: 'Hey, what does Crosby do in these situations? What does Malkin do in this situation? How does this guy do that?'" Tocchet said. "So that's the engagement and I love that because they want to learn. If you're 20-year-old kids, they watch YouTube. They want to see how these guys do certain things, and I love that about it."

Tocchet knows if the Coyotes can learn even a little from the Penguins, that will help reinforce the process he has been preaching.

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