Tocchet enters hostile Canucks landscape facing many challenges after Boudreau drama

analysis

VANCOUVER – In a season of massive disappointment and divisiveness, the most remarkable achievement by Vancouver Canucks management is turning the coach of an under-achieving, 27th-place team into a martyr.

Bruce Boudreau deserved better. Firing him was entirely logical, but the way it was handled seems indefensible. Boudreau didn’t deserve to keep his job, but certainly deserved to lose it with dignity.

Instead, the upsetting optics of the last 10 days – from Elliotte Friedman’s initial report about the Canucks’ pursuit of Rick Tocchet, to president Jim Rutherford’s public comments last week about contacting potential coaching candidates, to the sight of the grandfatherly Boudreau fighting back tears on Saturday after the last of his 1,087 National Hockey League games as a head coach – have dropped the Vancouver organization to its lowest point this century.

When Boudreau took over from Travis Green less than 14 months ago as general manager Jim Benning was swept from power, there was a groundswell of support for change. Fans demanded it and players were ready for it.

By the time Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin fired Boudreau on Sunday morning to make room for Tocchet behind the bench, many fans empathy for Boudreau had turned to anger.

And the players, most of them in tears after Saturday’s 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, are mentally and emotionally exhausted after playing their asses off for Boudreau amid all the debilitating drama of this season.

This is the hostile landscape Tocchet now strides into from TNT’s television studio, and that Allvin and Rutherford, in the market only a year, are still trying to understand.

“First and foremost, I mean, that just shows how passionate the fans are here in Vancouver,” Allvin said Sunday of the outpouring of love for Boudreau the night before. “What a great market. And obviously, Bruce made an impression for the fans to like him. But again, this is a decision based on results and based on process, and where we are right now where we want to move forward here. This is not something we came up with last week. This has been on the top of my mind here since I took the job.”

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Allvin was hired one year ago this week, about seven weeks after Rutherford was signed to replace Benning atop the hockey operations pyramid. Hired on Dec. 5, 2021, Boudreau preceded his superiors to Vancouver.

That miscalculation of order by owner Francesco Aquilini, hiring Boudreau before finalizing the deal for the coach’s boss, was the foundation of the dysfunction that became evident at the end of last season when Rutherford first talked publicly about the Canucks’ shortcomings and lack of “structure” under Boudreau.

The coaching staff was rebuilt around Boudreau over the summer, but the relationship between him and management looked untenable when Rutherford went on Sportsnet 650 radio on Nov. 7, 12 games into the season, and repeated his criticisms about team structure while also promising to “change the makeup of our defence” and stating the need by staff to hold players more accountable.

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The next morning in Ottawa, where the Canucks were about to open a five-game road trip, Boudreau told reporters: “It is what it is. You know, it’s my 47th year in the business. I’ve seen a lot of things, so I mean, it’s just another thing added to the book that I’ll never write.”

Boudreau said Saturday that he thought he was getting fired then, but it took another 2 ½ months. It will be a helluva book if Boudreau ever writes one.

“I will apologize to Bruce for this,” Rutherford said at Sunday’s press conference introducing Tocchet, 58, as the Canucks’ 21st coach. “When people asked me a question, I’m probably too direct and too honest. That goes back to my comment about the team playing (with) structure. I’ve done that my whole career; I’ve tried to be honest. And sometimes that affects certain people.

“In this case, it probably did affect him. And I’m sorry I did that. And I’ve learned from it. So I’ve decided that I need to zip it; I’m going to let Patrik and Rick Tocchet talk about the team and just stay away from those things. But unfortunately, it turned out the way it did. Nobody takes great pride in this. I’ve known Bruce for a long time. He has been a friend and I feel very bad about it. And if I’ve offended anybody in the process, I apologize personally on behalf of the Canucks.”

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That was for what he said. But Rutherford offered no apology for the torturous pace of Boudreau’s dismissal or for not promoting assistant coach Mike Yeo to replace Boudreau on an interim basis last week while the Canucks concluded contract negotiations with Tocchet.

Rutherford argued that stories about Tocchet replacing Boudreau were “speculation,” and that the Canucks really didn’t do anything differently than most teams when replacing a coach mid-season.

“I’m not going to change direction based on speculation, not even knowing where it’s coming from,” he said. “We have to do our job the way we see fit. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.”

Beyond the disconnect between Boudreau and Rutherford, there were reasons to change coaches.

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After declaring the playoffs a baseline goal for this season, the Canucks have the sixth-worst record in the NHL at 18-25-3. They are last (and historically inept) in penalty killing, 31st in goals allowed and 25th in shot share. The Canucks have blown multi-goal leads and lost eight times this season, and Saturday’s loss was Vancouver’s 10th in 12 games.

As Boudreau said Saturday: “I don’t think I lost the room, I just lost games.”

Tocchet’s most immediate challenge is to get control of the dressing room and have dispirited players try as hard for him as they did for Boudreau. He hopes bringing in Adam Foote as an assistant coach and Sergei Gonchar as a development instructor will help.

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“I think regardless of how it went down, you have to have those relationships (with players),” Tocchet said. “I’m a relationship guy. I was talking to Patrik about this, and Jim: create a safe environment. . . (so) once you hit that locker room, guys feel safe and trusting.

“Coaches can’t be dictators; there’s got to be a partnership and you’ve got to give the players a voice. But there’s also going to be some hard rules, too, the way you play the game. So I’m not worried about that part. That’s something I’ve always been good at, relationships.”

Tocchet made it clear his top priority is to improve the Canucks’ defensive play. He said they need to be able to kill penalties, and indicated he’d rather not have top players like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes playing shorthanded minutes.

Allvin said he told Tocchet during the interview process that the Canucks are not a quick fix. But when asked about regaining the trust of fans, Allvin mentioned the Stanley Cup.

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“That’s what they’re waiting for, right?” he said. “And winning hockey games, I think that’s what the fans want to see. And I believe that fans want to see a team that competes every night and plays the right way.

“I believe there is a daily process that needs to be made before you’re taking the next step. And what I mean by that is that we need to emphasize on how we practise and how we behave every single day. And if we do that, things on the ice will be easy for the players. I failed to create this environment for the players. When they’re walking into Rogers Arena… they should know what their expectations are every single day. And I failed about that because I only think we use two-thirds of the team here. I think there’s other players in this locker room that are capable of doing more.

“It’s step by step, brick by brick. Again, it’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s got to be a lot of work and a lot of bumps on the road here, and we’ll get it right.”

“I don’t look at it as a tough start,” Tocchet said of the circumstances surrounding his arrival. “I look at it like it’s a new day tomorrow, to get to know the players and then just start… the process and chip away at it.”

The Canucks practise Monday before the Tocchet era officially opens with a home game Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks.

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