Rick Tocchet Says Don’t Write Off Penguins Just Yet

Rick Tocchet won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a power forward, and two more as an assistant coach.

And while he left the organization five years ago and no longer lives in the area, his ties to the team and the region remain strong.

“There’s a big piece of me still there,” Tocchet said during a wide-ranging interview with Pittsburgh Hockey Now.

*(This story is Part 1 of 2)

He likes to tell how, during a four-year run as a coach in Arizona, it was standard procedure for the Coyotes’ video coach to put a Penguins game on TV in the coaches’ office, so Tocchet could keep up with his old club while tending to his official duties.

Clearly, he’s been keeping an eye on the Penguins for quite a while, and he liked what he saw from them in 2021-22.

“I enjoy the way they play, how structured they are,” Tocchet said. “I still enjoy watching (Sidney) Crosby’s gamesmanship, the way he plays the game. I enjoy how dominant he still is.

“I love the fact that a guy like (Kris Letang) continues to play at a high level. He’s played a lot of hockey, a lot of bumps and bruises, and he’s trying to find the Fountain of Youth. I thought he had a terrible year.

“I love seeing guys like (Bryan Rust) blossom, (Jake) Guentzel. The way (Mike Sullivan) is a tactician, the way he’s had to deal with stuff they’ve had to deal with.”

More importantly, Tocchet is upbeat about what he believes the Penguins can accomplish in the near future.

Although they have lost five playoff series in a row and face the potential of major personnel changes before next season, Tocchet says he thinks they are capable of being a serious contender for another Stanley Cup.

“The way they played in the playoffs against the Rangers, I think they are,” he said. “A couple of moves here and there, a healthy (Tristan) Jarry … If you had to pick eight teams to vie for a Cup (in 2021-22), they’d be in my eight, for sure. One hundred percent.

“I wouldn’t discount anything with that team. They’ll probably have to get a couple of younger guys in the lineup. I’m sure they’re going to try to find that. But I think they can have another kick at the can, for sure.”

GM Ron Hextall is facing a potentially frenetic offseason, headlined by his effort to re-sign two members of the team’s long-time core who are unrestricted free agents, Evgeni Malkin and Letang.

They, like Crosby, are in their mid-30s. Nonetheless, Tocchet thinks they still can be the driving force behind this team.

“The older guys, they always bring energy,” he said. “I know Sid. He’s probably thinking of different ways to train this year so that he can be better.”

Crosby was very good during the Penguins’ seven-game loss to the Rangers in Round 1, at least until a head shot from New York defenseman Jacob Trouba knocked him out of the second half of Game 5 and all of Game 6.

Despite losing Crosby for that key stretch and playing virtually the entire series without Jarry, Casey DeSmith, Brian Dumoulin and Rickard Rakell, the Penguins easily could have reached the second round, where Tocchet believes they could have fared well against Carolina.

“I had Pittsburgh to go to the final four,” he said. “And I still think I was right. If I’m (New York coach) Gerard Gallant, I’d buy a lottery ticket. Everything that could have gone the Rangers’ way, went their way.”

His respect and affection for the Penguins notwithstanding, Tocchet might well be coaching against them this fall. After spending the past season as a studio analyst on TNT’s coverage of the NHL, he has interviewed for several of the coaching openings around the league this spring.

The competition for those jobs is ferocious – “There’s a lot of great coaches who are not working,” Tocchet said — but it’s obvious that he’s driven to run a bench again.

“I’m a competitive guy,” he said. “I’d love to get back in. I’d just like to get back in the right situation, organization-wise. Who you’re working for, the type of team. Those things mean a lot to me now, more than ever.”

Tocchet’s first two head-coaching jobs were in situations in Tampa and Arizona that could charitably be described as turbulent, and there’s no question that he’d like to get an opportunity in a setting that is more stable, and with a club that can legitimately challenge for a championship.

Not that he regrets going through any of the chaos he encountered in Tampa and Arizona.

“As much as they weren’t the most ideal situations for a head coach, I think you become a better coach for it,” Tocchet said. “I learned a lot in those stops. … You learn to deal with certain things that are thrown your way because of those experiences, so that’s an experience I’d never regret.”

Or forget. Much like the time he spent with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

(Part 2: Tocchet’s take on the Stanley Cup final.)

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