Canucks ASG Tocchet

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks already had star-level players before Rick Tocchet took over as their coach just over a year ago, but his ability to bring them together is why so many are headed to the 2024 NHL All Star Weekend together.

It’s also why it was important to the Canucks-record five players taking part this weekend in Toronto that Tocchet will also be there to coach. Vancouver added a sixth with the acquisition of center Elias Lindholmin a trade with the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.

“It's a complimentary thing of how the team has played under him and guys have become better players under him,” said forward J.T. Miller, the only one of the five Canucks playing his first All-Star Game. “And the fact we have so many guys is 100 percent a reflection of how good the team is playing for him.”

The other four Canucks taking part in the 2024 Honda (U.S.)/Rogers (Canada) NHL All-Star Game (3 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVAS) on Saturday are defenseman Quinn Hughes, who was selected by the NHL on Jan. 4 and will be in his second All-Star Game after playing as a rookie in 2020; forward Elias Pettersson, who has appeared in the All-Star Game four times; goalie Thatcher Demko, who played in the 2022 NHL All Star Game; and forward Brock Boeser, who as a rookie won the skills competition and was named MVP at the 2018 All-Star Game.

Vancouver president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford said after signing a three-year contract Jan. 19 that the Canucks had good players when he was hired Dec. 9, 2021, but they didn’t play as a team.

That has changed under Tocchet, who replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach Jan. 22, 2023, and added the structure and accountability that has the Canucks (33-11-5) atop the Western Conference standings and so well represented at the All-Star Game.

“[Tocchet] deserves to be there. He's put in just as much work as we have and I'm glad that he's getting the credit he deserves,” Demko said. “That's the fun part is being able to share it with the guys. I'm really proud of what they've been able to accomplish and the leadership that they've all taken on and put upon themselves and it will be really fun to share that experience.”

That leadership started last summer, when a group that includes Canucks players headed to Toronto this week coordinated an early return to Vancouver so they could skate together in August in an attempt to avoid the slow starts that plagued the team the previous two years.

The Canucks started 12-3-1, and Hughes credits it in part to Tocchet’s enthusiasm in exit meetings at the end of the previous season.

“He was really hungry,” Hughes said. “He wished we had another 60 (games), and that gives you excitement to come back to have a guy that’s really excited and has a plan.”

Tune-in to All-Star Skills, Game in Toronto

After Hughes was picked by the NHL on Jan. 4, Boeser, Pettersson, Miller and Demko were voted in by the fans, a testament to team success that has reinvigorated a Vancouver fan base that hasn’t watched a Stanley Cup Playoff game at Rogers Arena since 2015. (The Canucks did qualify for the playoffs in 2020, their only appearance in the past eight seasons, but played their games in Edmonton due to the pandemic).

The most All-Stars the Canucks ever had previous to this season was three (in 2003 and 2011).

“I didn't really expect this many guys to be going but it's obviously an honor and it'll be fun to have those guys there and enjoy the whole experience with them,” Boeser said. “It's been a great year, and it just shows how hard we've worked. But it's an honor to all the other guys in the locker room on how we've been playing and how good we've been playing as a team.”

Hughes is 10th in NHL scoring and leads all defensemen with 62 points (12 goals, 50 assists) in 49 games.

Miller is tied with Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers for fourth with 67 points (21 goals, 46 assists) in 49 games and is on pace for his first 100-point season in the NHL. Pettersson is eighth with 64 points (27 goals, 37 assists) in 49 games and on pace to improve on his NHL career-best 102 last season.

Boeser scored a hat trick in his final game before the break Saturday to reach 30 goals for the first time in the NHL. But the way he scores now, on rebounds and deflections from the front of the net rather than just the wrist shot that defined his early success, is also a credit to the coach.

“He is not on the perimeter as much as he used to be,” Miller said. “He's inside the scoring area and when you're in there all the time, pucks are going to bounce on your stick. He's there and he's got really good hand-eye.”

To Boeser’s point about “all the other guys,” the Canucks have five other forwards with double-digit goals this season: Nils Hoglander (14), Pius Suter (12), Dakota Joshua (10), Ilya Mikheyev (10), and Sam Lafferty (10).

And it’s not just offense -- it’s the improvements in their own end under Tocchet that has raised optimism about a playoff run in Vancouver and helped Demko play his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation as the NHL’s best goalie at 26-8-1 with a .920 save percentage and five shutouts, which is tied for the NHL lead and two more than in his first four seasons combined.

“Good defense leads to good offense and we've always had good offensive players but now when we have good structure, with good goaltending, we're going to score eventually,” Pettersson said. “Now we're good in the defensive zone.”