Pens’ hiring of Tocchet a risky choice

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ eventful offseason took an especially interesting turn when Mike Johnston’s hiring as head coach was announced last week.

It wasn’t even that Johnston was hired after he failed to make the initial list of candidates. Rather it was the simultaneous announcement that Rick Tocchet would be his No. 1 assistant.

Tocchet’s inclusion on the staff was apparently mandated by ownership, part of the organization’s stated goal to increase its level of grit after five years of playoff disappointment. Tocchet’s hiring appeared to be non-negotiable, and it reportedly became a deal breaker for at least one potential coaching candidate.

Little wonder. Coaches want to pick their own assistants. Staffs spend hours together, and it’s important that they’re all on the same page. It’s difficult to feel that loyalty when you don’t even know the guy who’s been selected as your top aide.

This may all turn out fine. Tocchet is a hard worker whose devotion to hockey was unquestioned as a player. He was a key addition to the Penguins’ second Stanley Cup team, a fierce competitor who once played after his jaw was broken. He wore six different uniforms in the NHL, but he always played like a Flyer.

Tocchet’s coaching record was too spotty to make him a serious candidate for the head coaching job, so he’s been cast as an assistant. He’s been designated as the butt kicker, the hard guy who will try to translate his approach to the game to a team that often seems to lack passion.

But it’s an awkward fit, especially with a rookie head coach who doesn’t have the name or NHL history that Tocchet does. Tocchet is close to Mario Lemieux. He watched playoff games from the owner’s box this spring. Isn’t it disconcerting to know your assistant plays golf with your boss?

What if the players take Tocchet’s message more than Johnston’s? Pascal Dupuis did an interview on radio and said his reaction to the hiring was to do a Google search on Johnston. He’d obviously never heard of him. There isn’t a player in the locker room who doesn’t know who Tocchet is.

What happens if the players look past Johnston to hear what Tocchet has to say? If Tocchet becomes their go-to guy, doesn’t Johnston then become an empty suit, a head coach in name only? The situation has the potential to be uncomfortable.

Ownership’s philosophy is basically correct. The Penguins will be a better team if they play with the commitment that Tocchet had a player.

But the execution of bringing that fire to the team is clumsy, and could wind up being disruptive.

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It could be that age has caught up with him, it could be that an accumulation of injuries has made him less effective, or it could be that he’s just going through a rough patch that can be corrected.

Here’s what it’s not: It’s not that he’s been distracted by promoting his awful book. Baseball isn’t football, where every minute of game day is programmed by the team. Shaking hands with people at Giant Eagle at noon isn’t likely to have an effect on a relief pitcher’s performance 10 hours later.

Players routinely make appearances for the team on game days. It isn’t a big deal.

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