There are times Tampa Bay Lightning
forward Mark Recchi
struggles to differentiate between his former teammate and his current coach -- Rick Tocchet
While that may not seem like the ideal situation, the 40-year-old veteran, who played with Tocchet for three seasons in Philadelphia, knows better.
Tocchet was thrust into the spotlight Nov. 14 when Lightning General Manager Brian Lawton
named him interim head coach following the dismissal of Barry Melrose
In nine games under Tocchet, the club is 1-4-4, with five of the losses coming by one goal. In fact, Tampa Bay has played in a League-high 16 one-goal games this season, but has gone just 4-4-8 in those contests. The Bolts are 29th in the League with 20 points, while averaging a League-low 2.24 goals a game.
Despite the club's struggles, Recchi has witnessed a change in attitude.
"Rick has that same tenacity and desire as a coach that he had as a player," Recchi said. "As a player (and teammate), he knew and understood the game so well. Now as a coach, you always know where you stand with Rick Tocchet
because he never allows any feelings to fester; he'll tell you what's on his mind, and as a player, that makes it a whole lot easier."
Recchi is right. Tocchet hasn't changed much since his days as one of the League's best power forwards -- he's one of three players in NHL history to record at least 400 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes. He quickly established himself as an organized, well-prepared mentor behind the bench, demanding accountability and effort.
The first order of business for Tocchet, who Lawton admitted would provide a more structured environment, was to re-energize his players.
"I think our intensity in practice needed an upgrade; we want guys in the lineup who are excited to play," Tocchet said. "I thought we were playing slow, but it was tough not having that much practice time. It was almost like on-the-job-training, which was the only downfall when I stepped in. But there's nothing you can do about that. We've been showing a lot of video, and during morning skates been doing a lot more walk-throughs in order to save energy for game time."
Tocchet, 44, feels his approach has provided himself and assistant coaches Mike Sullivan, Wes Walz
and Cap Raeder more one-on-one interaction with the players.
"We're probably doing a lot more individual teaching," he said. "We're constantly giving these guys information in order to keep their energy level high. We haven't scored that many goals this year so it's important to keep the energy level high, but at the same time you don't want to press them."
Do you think Lightning rookie forward Steven Stamkos
is encouraged by the recent play of the team under Tocchet?
"It's like night and day," Stamkos told NHL.com. "The coaching staff has been outstanding because they get every player prepared. We've been doing lots of video work, so we can see where the problems are and what we need to do to correct it. There's a lot more structure and it's really on us as players to win some games now. (The coaches) are doing all they can, but it's tough and frustrating when you're losing. We're supposed to know what we're doing out there on the ice, but we're still making those same mistakes at times."
It's apparent Stamkos is willing to pay the price under the tutelage of Tocchet; he dropped the gloves for the first time this season to tangle with Nikolai Zherdev
in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers on Nov. 26. He then had a goal and 4 points in the following three games while averaging more than 19 minutes each contest -- well above his season average (13:27).
"I was really surprised when I saw Steven fight, but I heard he was a pretty feisty kid in juniors and fought a few times," Tocchet said with a grin. "He's played very well the last three, four games."
Tocchet, who spent 11 days as an interim coach for the Phoenix Coyotes
while filling in for Wayne Gretzky
in December 2005, is hoping to make the best of this opportunity with the Lightning.
"I wasn't really hoping to be an assistant coach the rest of my life," Tocchet said. "To me, my goal was to become a head coach. I felt that I was ready and I'm real excited to be in this position. There are things I've learned from every experience and I've been fortunate to play for a lot of great coaches, like Scotty Bowman, Mike Keenan, Jim Schoenfeld and John Tortorella, and it was great spending time with Wayne in Phoenix. Now it's time to blend my stuff with what I've learned from those guys."
Lawton has received plenty of positive feedback.
"Rick is doing an excellent job; the team is working harder," he said. "I realize we still have our work cut out for us, there's no doubt about that. The instruction that the players are receiving is more in line with what I would like to see done throughout the entire organization, though, so I've been very pleased with that."
Defenseman Paul Ranger
, who has had three different coaches in his four seasons with Tampa, is hopeful Tocchet will stick.
"You never want to be in that situation or see (somebody get fired), but obviously there was something that needed to be done," Ranger said. "It's not something we're dwelling over and not something we're going to think about for the rest of the year; we've moved on and we're here with (Tocchet) leading us.
"Off the ice, I think we know the type of team we are, but we're still trying to establish what kind of team we want to be on the ice. We want to be aggressive, but also a defensively responsible team. We've got to play with more tenacity and more desperation, and once we have established that, we'll be a team to contend with. Every team wants toughness, but what's more important in the end is becoming a tough team to play against. I'd rather have guys that work hard, go to battle, play sound hockey and want to win the game than a group of guys who just want to drop the gloves."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.