Rick Tocchet on possible NHL playoff formats, Taylor Hall, Mario vs. Jordan and more

Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet made news during the NHL’s season pause for a painful reason.

“This is when you get cocky rollerblading,” Tocchet tweeted last month, along with a couple of images of nasty scrapes on his body.

Since then, he has rediscovered biking. “I’ve explored Arizona a little bit more than I would have in-season,” the coach told the “ESPN On Ice” podcast this week. “This rollerblading … you gotta wear wrist guards and a helmet. That was the problem with me. If I ever do rollerblade again, I’ll be wearing those for sure.”

Tocchet joined us this week for a wide-ranging interview that touched on the NHL season restart, the potential playoff format, his players’ training, Mario Lemieux vs. Michael Jordan and the fate of free-agent winger Taylor Hall:

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ESPN: How are you communicating with the players these days? Is it big group Zoom calls or more one-on-one stuff?

Tocchet: I’ve seen the odd player around, maybe a text here or there. I think because you’re starting to hear stuff that might happen [with the season], I have calls set up in the next five days with almost every player on a few things. I’ve had some contact, not a ton, during the quarantine period.

ESPN: As we start talking about format, the theory is that it’s going to be a 24-team field. What’s the perspective of a coach whose team was on the cusp of the playoffs when the season was paused, and of a player who was around for a long time?

Tocchet: Opportunity. For me, it’s opportunity for our organization. You get in this thing, and it’s obviously going to be quicker. Not a marathon, more of a sprint. You have an opportunity. You look at training camps every year, and there’s always one team that comes out of the gate quickly in the first month. As the season goes on, things start to separate a little bit. It’s no different here. When training camp is over, it won’t be like, “Oh, here are some exhibition games and you can have a bad couple of weeks.” If you have a bad couple of weeks, I guess in this format, you’re out.

ESPN: The Coyotes weren’t in the playoffs when the season was paused. Were you on pins and needles at all, wondering whether they’d settle on a playoff format that would leave your team out in the cold?

Tocchet: It’s been kicked around that just the top 16 teams get in, because 70 games was enough of a sample size. But then you start getting into, “Well, it’s not fair because some teams had harder schedules.” Look, I don’t think there’s a perfect situation. If it happens that you’re not in the top 16, then you have to accept it as a coach and as an organization and move on. So I wouldn’t say pins and needles. I felt that hopefully they’d go to this format that lets some of these bubble teams in. It’s not a big discrepancy. It’s not like you’re letting a team that’s way out of the playoffs in, and that’s not fair. You’re talking about a few points here and there. So I don’t think it’s that unfair.

ESPN: That said, looking at the field, do you feel like this could be anybody’s year? Could anybody get into this tournament and win it?

Tocchet: Yeah. I think everybody’s going to be healthy. That shuffles the deck a little bit. To me, it’s the team that plays the quickest, that can play to their structure the quickest. There’s no time to ease into it. That’s one thing we’re going to talk about with the coaches over the next couple of days is training camp. What’s the best way to have it? The one thing during this layoff that players lose is a competitive edge. That’s the hardest thing. So does your training camp have to be a little more competitive than usual? Sometimes when you have training camp and then a whole year, you try to space it out a little bit. But we might not have time to space it out. The competitive edge is something we have to instill in our players right from day one.

ESPN: A shiver just went down my spine thinking about Rick Tocchet making a training camp more competitive.

Tocchet: I was thinking of hiring Michael Jordan as an assistant coach. Talk about competitive. There might be fights at our camp if we hired Michael Jordan. I don’t think there’s ever been a more competitive guy, watching [“The Last Dance”].

ESPN: What you have to do is find some spites and grudges for your players. Really play it up.

Tocchet: It’s true. One of my players called me and said that back then, players hated each other, you know? They asked me about it and I said, yeah, back then I had a general hate for organizations and teams. It’s a little different now. It’s competitive, but I don’t think there’s a hate. Michael would build up that hate, and he’d go out and get 35 points and win.

ESPN: Where do you think the hate went in hockey?

Tocchet: Guys train together. A lot of social media together. The All-Star Games, the [world championships], the integration of the Europeans in the United States and Canada. I think it’s a lot of different things. Guys are around each other more and become buddies. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but when I played, you didn’t see the guys as much. Obviously there was a lot of hate, whether it’s with another player or an organization. There wasn’t a lot of talking during the warm-up, that’s for sure. If I did, Mike Keenan would have probably benched me. He used to watch our warm-ups. I know that. I don’t watch them. But he did.

ESPN: Since you brought up Jordan: You played with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Which one of those guys would make for the best subject for a “Last Dance”-like documentary?

Tocchet: Mario’s a simple guy. Jagr had a little bit more flair. But I think Mario would be great. You watch Michael Jordan, and Mario was very competitive, didn’t say a lot. The odd time he would say something inspirational or get on a teammate, but I think Michael Jordan was more aggressive when it comes to that. So you have two pinnacle athletes, both unbelievable in their own ways. That’s a good question. I’d say Mario, still.

ESPN: Jagr has the gambling thing, which is more Jordan-esque.

Tocchet: I don’t know how much he gambles now, but I know he used to play baccarat or something. He had a funky way of playing those games.

ESPN: Switching gears, what are your thoughts about what hockey could look like after the COVID-19 shutdown? There’s been talk about a ban on spitting, players wearing face shields, no more handshake lines, players not getting dressed in the locker rooms. Have you thought about any of these things? How would they be received by players?

Tocchet: Yeah, the no scrums and all of that stuff. I guess what it really comes down to is that whatever you’re dealt, you have to deal with it. I have a tough time seeing [it]. How do you tell a guy that’s in front of the net, trying to fight for position, there’s a whistle and there’s no scrum? That’s going to be a tough one. How do you make sure there’s no scrums? The full face shield … I understand it. But it’s going to change a lot of the look of the game. It really will.

ESPN: Arizona is obviously opening up. Gyms are open and such. Have your players been able to get on the ice in the past few weeks as the state starts to reopen?

Tocchet: I honestly don’t know. And whatever they do, I have to turn a blind eye. They’re not supposed to. I think now that Arizona’s opening up a bit, there’s going to be a chance for some players to grab some ice. Through this quarantine, we’ve had 13 or 14 guys stay here. That’s one of the luxuries of being in Arizona. A lot of guys stayed here, and got to be able to train by themselves. I’ve heard a lot of the guys are in really good shape, which helps. Quarantine back east might be a little tougher. I actually ran into Auston Matthews at a coffee shop a little while ago. I know he’s training out here. Maybe those guys will all skate together and they can get some pointers off him. [Laughs] That would help.

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