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Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet just went all-in, making a risky bet in his high-stakes duel with Edmonton Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch.

Both coaches have made bold decisions in the series, but Tocchet took things to a new level after his team lost 3-2 to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night in Edmonton.

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Tocchet’s move? He went to battle against under-performing players on his own team after the loss.

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Asked about his team’s comeback to tie the game, Tocchet turned the question around. “Yeah, we’ve been a resilient group all year but we need five or six guys to get going here. I mean, it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. With some guys I don’t know if they thought it was playoffs. We can’t play with 12 guys. We got to figure it out quick.”

He returned to this theme a moment later: “We need more consistent effort from more guys.”

Next he blasted the team’s four-minute power play in the first. “It just wasn’t good. Not good enough. They know it. I didn’t think they worked hard. They mismanaged the puck… You have to have a work ethic and you have to hold pucks. I didn’t think we did.”

Asked about star forward Elias Pettersson not getting it done, Tocchet said, “Like I said there’s five or six guys. He’s got to get going. I don’t know what else to say.”

A moment later he talked about Edmonton’s winning goal and his players not getting fast to the puck. “You know where the puck is going to go. You just got to get there before the other guy and I think we’re pausing. Some guys are playing ‘pause hockey.’ And you can’t win if you have five or six passengers, or seven. I don’t know how many, but there was at least half a dozen just passengers tonight. Quite frankly that’s what it was. But, saying that, that’s playoff hockey where the next game is a new game. So some of those guys can be a hero for us. We got to step it up.”

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Tocchet also promised line-up changes.

I’ll let Vancouver fans and pundits figure out exactly which players that Tocchet was referencing but it was Filip Hronek who beat beat on the forecheck by Evander Kane to kick off the Virtuous Cycle leading to Evan Bouchard’s winning goal, and we don’t have to guess about Pettersson because Tocchet named him.

Pettersson just signed an eight-year deal at $11.6 million per season. He scored 89 points in 82 games this year but just has one goal and three assists in 10 playoff games. Much of the talk in Vancouver is around how to get Pettersson going in these playoffs. It strikes me that Pettersson’s main issue is that he’s a smaller player and smaller players often get pushed to the outside in the free-for-all, hack-a-thon, park-the-bus slugfest that is NHL playoff hockey. We’ve seen the same thing with Mitch Marner in Toronto and to some extent with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton.

Tocchet is now evidently trying the blunt, forceful and critical approach with Pettersson, a move not often seen these days from NHL coaches. Public criticism of players is rare, especially when it comes to grouping a star player in with “passengers” who just lost their team a big game.

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Will it work? Who can say? But such a harsh public-scolding comes across as a risky move. If Pettersson and his fellow passengers respond well — as some players will do — perhaps it’s just the jolt they needed to wake them up. But there’s also room for dissension here, hard feelings and discord. You can see how being so public in criticizing players might be resented.

Of course, I’m just speculating here. Tocchet knows his players better than any of us do. He’s come across well, as a strong communicator and leader in the series, so perhaps he’s pushed just the right button.


The Calculations of Coach Comatose

It could also be that Tocchet’s comment came across as jarring because I’ve been so used to listening to Jay Woodcroft and Kris Knoblauch in Edmonton these past few years. Woodcroft and especially Knoblauch are perpetually supportive, calm and positive in their public statements about individual players.

For example, after three straight poor games from Stuart Skinner, the most negative thing that Knoblauch would allow about the goalie was the most banal of statements, followed by positive reinforcement:

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“I think tonight is one he’d like to have back,” the coach said after Game Three. “We’ll see what he’s got in the future. Whether that is Game Four or Game Five or whatever it is. But we’ll be seeing Stu again. And I have no doubt that he’ll respond and play well.”

Of course, Knoblauch has also taken risks in this series, namely replacing Skinner with Calvin Pickard for Game Four.

I’ll suggest, though, that the Pickard-over-Skinner decision wasn’t difficult, that it was made months ago when Pickard came up and played so well in relief of Skinner during the regular season. The Oilers managers and coaches made a clear decision at that time to not pursue any other goalie in a trade, but to go with Skinner and Pickard in the playoffs.

They had to know at that time that even if Edmonton was going to win the Stanley Cup, it was highly unlikely that Skinner would play every game. Surely he would have a rough patch and another goalie would be needed to step in. With Pickard playing so well, that goalie would be him.

And that’s exactly what happened. Knoblauch was simply following through on a plan made months ago.

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For one game, this plan has worked, with Pickard playing well in Edmonton’s 3-2 in.

Knoblauch made one other big move heading into Game Four, splitting up the Darnell Nurse/Cody Ceci pairing, which has struggled for almost the entire 2024 calendar year, leaking far too many Grade A shots and goals against.

Edmonton tried to fix this situation at the trade deadline by moving on Chris Tanev, but Calgary chose to send Tanev to Dallas. The Oilers were left hoping Nurse and Ceci would get it together, but they have struggled to do so.

At last, Knoblauch split up the long-time partnership, putting Nurse with Vincent Desharnais (a move that had been tried for a few games in February) and Ceci with Brett Kulak.

Things worked out better for all players in Game Four, but I’ll suggest to win the Cup more change will be needed on the blueline, that Edmonton is going to need more speed and puck moving, and that big, fast Philip Broberg might well go in for Ceci at some point.

A few forwards are also struggling, namely Corey Perry and Warren Foegele, so again I can see Knoblauch going with Sam Gagner, Adam Erne or Sam Carrick instead for a game or two.

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Shuffling the forwards is a small bet. Going with Broberg over Ceci would be a huge bet, but fortune favors the bold.

Perhaps Tocchet’s boldness will be rewarded with huge games from his passengers players in Game Five. But Knoblauch still has moves he can make as well. And just now I’m liking his calm and calculated approach, one that has earned Knoblauch the nickname of Coach Comatose from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Player hockey is a cauldron of fear and glory. A cool head and steady hand on the stir stick strikes me as just the ticket.

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