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Canucks new coach Rick Tocchet on J.T. Miller: ‘Maybe he’s pacing himself’

"You can't stop backchecking because you're mad at somebody."
Rick Tocchet takes the ice for his first practice as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

In Pittsburgh, they called Rick Tocchet the “Phil Kessel Whisperer” for the way he got through to the enigmatic star when he was with the Penguins as an assistant coach. 

Now, some hope that Tocchet can get through to J.T. Miller the same way.

Never mind that Kessel’s two most successful seasons in Pittsburgh came after Tocchet left the club or that when Kessel joined Tocchet with the Arizona Coyotes, his points immediately plummeted, scoring at less than half the rate at 5-on-5 than he did with the Penguins his previous season.

And never mind that it’s extremely troubling that the player whose seven-year, $56 million contract hasn’t even started yet apparently needs a “whisperer” to get him to control his temper and play defence.

Let’s set aside those two things and look at what Tocchet said during Sunday’s press conference.

"You get in the habit of pacing yourself."

Lost slightly in the continued hubbub over the firing of Bruce Boudreau, Tocchet had a few things to say about the mercurial Miller, though he frequently interjected to say that what he was saying applied broadly to all players.

Tocchet’s first theory on Miller’s struggles was that he’s playing too many minutes.

“I just don’t know if you can play those types of guys that many minutes — 24, 23 minutes — I don’t think that’s what we’re looking to do here,” said Tocchet. “So, J.T. is put in positions — sometimes maybe he’s pacing himself.”

For the record, Miller is averaging 20:44 in ice time per game and has cracked the 23-minute mark five times this season. 

The overall point, however, is a fair one. Players who know they’re going to be playing a lot of minutes might, consciously or subconsciously, pace themselves at times. That could easily result in coasting on a backcheck when it seems like the player will have no impact on how the play unfolds or taking it easy on the way to the bench for a line change. 

“I’m not sure, in today’s game, if you want to win, you can play 24 minutes — penalty kill, power play, five-on-five, six-on-five,” said Tocchet. “I think what happens, you get in the habit of pacing yourself. I’ve coached some elite players — Sidney Crosby plays 19-20 minutes.”

For what it’s worth, Crosby is averaging 20:06 in ice time per game this season, 38 seconds less per game than Miller, and has four games this season above 23 minutes, one fewer than Miller. But the truth is, no NHL forward this season is averaging over 23 minutes per game, though Mikko Rantanen is close at 22:58 for the injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche. 

Miller is currently 12th among NHL forwards in ice time per game.

“There are times when elite players are out there and you have to use them, but I think in the long run, in the long game, you’ve gotta have a four-line team that can play,” Tocchet continued. 

Perhaps that explains the lines at Tocchet’s first practice, as he had Miller back at centre and moved a couple of the team’s weaker forwards into top-six roles, seemingly in an attempt to balance the lines.

It remains to be seen if Jack Studnicka will be a good fit alongside Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser or if Sheldon Dries can hang with J.T. Miller and Conor Garland, but it seems clear what Tocchet is trying to do with this lineup: create four lines that can be steadily rolled out to balance the ice time.

Tocchet might reduce Miller's minutes on the penalty kill

Another way to get those minutes down is to give the Canucks’ skilled players less time on the penalty kill and Tocchet was blunt on that topic, saying, “Honestly, I can’t keep rolling those guys out,” and added that he wanted to start working on the details of penalty killing with more of the players who are not being currently used in that situation. 

That gets back to the philosophy of Travis Green — who Tocchet called a close friend — who tried to use primarily bottom-six forwards on the penalty kill, refusing to use Elias Pettersson in shorthanded situations.

Perhaps Pettersson should stay on the penalty kill, but there’s an argument to be made that Miller could use a break. Miller has been on the ice for the most power play goals against of any Canucks forward this season. 

Among the 166 NHL forwards with at least 40 minutes on the penalty kill this season, Miller has been on the ice for the highest rate of goals against: 16.88 goals against per 60 minutes. The second-highest rate belongs to the Anaheim Ducks’ Isac Lundestrom at 14.67 goals against per 60 minutes.

"You can't stop backchecking because you're mad at somebody."

Beyond the ice time, one of the issues for Miller this season has been keeping his emotions in check. That’s something Tocchet can relate to. 

“I was an emotional player,” said Tocchet. “But there’s different emotion. It’s okay to have emotion on the bench or tell your linemate, ‘Let’s go,’ but I think on the ice you’ve got to be careful of your body language. Emotion, if you’re upset, doesn’t mean — and this is not an indictment of J.T. — I’m just saying it’s your body language, you can’t stop backchecking because you’re mad at somebody.

“That’s one of my rules. It’s okay to be emotional, but you’ve got to have the right emotion — so, just channel it. That’s for everybody — it’s not J.T., I think a locker room, in general, has to have that.”

Tocchet also talked about how he’s seen while working on TNT’s hockey broadcasts that the Canucks are not the only team giving up multi-goal leads this season.

“I think the skill level is at an all-time high in the league but the game management hasn’t caught up,” said Tocchet. “That’s something I’d like to talk to the players about — whether it’s J.T. or whoever, the core group of the players — can we get better at game management? 

That’s something that will help, and it will help J.T. — sometimes, you’ve gotta live for another shift. Everything can’t be high-risk. You’re up 3-2, if the play’s there, make it, but you can’t throw pucks in the middle. And I’m not picking on J.T., I’m just talking in general, that’s my philosophy.”

Tocchet has a tall task ahead of him. And, just as Tocchet repeatedly said, not just with Miller but with the Canucks as a whole.