TAMPA — Rick Tocchet has been part of teams like this before. It's the first time, though, he has been in charge. The Lightning is not mathematically out of the playoffs, but it entered Tuesday a crushing 15 points out of the last spot, meaning the team is playing for pride and next season's jobs. In that sense, Tocchet, an interim in his first head-coaching gig, speaking of jobs, might face his most difficult task since taking over for the fired Barry Melrose on Nov. 14: keeping his players focused and engaged during the final 25 games of a second straight season in which they will be on the golf courses early. Tocchet said the process begins with him. "We can't move forward if I come in negative," he said. "But that doesn't mean you come in and put the music on and start laughing and joking, either. For me it's finding a fine line."
How do you keep things on track?
There are a lot of games left. I think what you've got to do is you've got to stay with the structure, and you've got to find players willing to stay with the structure and be competitive. The harsh reality is guys who pack it in are not going to be there. It's player evaluation. … With the new NHL and the economy, I don't think there are a ton of jobs. That might scare players into saying, "I'd better go to the finish line here." Whatever place you're in, you're looking for pros.
Describe the players you are looking for.
To me, we play Washington (Saturday) night and they're 25 points (28 after Tuesday's loss) ahead of us. They've slapped us around. You're looking for guys to say, "I'm not going to take it." I'm not talking about fighting, just the competitiveness. We're looking for those types of players.
Did you see any in a 5-1 loss?
Steve Downie, he really tried. I love seeing that. He wants to be here. We're not putting the flags up, "We're done," we'll never do that, but we're looking for the Steve Downies, the Paul Szczechuras, if he's called up. You know those guys will be competitive.
How much responsibility do the veterans have in nurturing that competitiveness?
These young guys, they need help from the core guys, the leaders. You can't have veterans pack it in, and these young guys are trying to win a job and have that disconnect. That's why you're looking to keep the connection of the team; play for pride. Sometimes it's a cliche, play for pride. But who wants to go out there and play for nothing.
Are you happy with the commitment of the veterans?
I don't think we're at the level I want us to be, no. We have radars on certain people. That's just the harsh reality. … It can go two ways. You can say, ''I'm just going to put in my time and take off,'' or you see the guys who spend the extra 10 minutes after practice shooting pucks. That's what you're looking for.
Isn't it tough, though, to be out of the playoff picture with so many games remaining?
You still have to come in to work with some kind of purpose. The Szczechuras, the Downies, the Matt Smabys, they deserve that and we have players like that. Marty St. Louis is a great leader when it comes to talking to younger guys and showing them how to work in practice and games. He's one of those guys who will never give up. Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, they know. They're Hall of Fame type guys. I'm just saying come to work every day and not feel sorry for yourself.
Who helped you as a player?
Brad McCrimmon and Mark Howe were the two guys I learned the game from when I was 18, 19 in Philadelphia. I owe a lot to those guys. We had Mike Keenan, who came in as a real hard rookie coach, and he was tough, and I understand what Mike was doing. He made us want to be together. It was us against him and it worked.
What's the most important lesson you've learned as a coach?
It's not to take things personal. For instance, you're playing the Washington Capitals, and we want to win that game, and I just thought the first half we really competed, and at the end we were just kind of, and I'm not saying everybody; I'm just saying that night you go home you're (angry). You're looking for some bite from certain people. But then you have to look at the whole picture. There's a lot of good people who want to win, so you have to kind of let it go the next day.
You have a lot of respect for the Capitals.
You can tell they like each other. They like being at the rink. You can tell hockey is fun. Sometimes it's almost like a puck on a pond. The Capitals have that attitude. They have fun. They're kicking soccer balls after practice, 20 guys. A guy scores and five guys hug each other. They're happy for the guy who scored. When you win, that happens. That's the stuff you've got to create.