Vitucci voices confidence in Walleye interim coach Dan WatsonWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
For the first time in franchise history, it won’t be Nick Vitucci behind the bench for the Toledo Walleye when the team returns to the ice March 1.
The head coach announced Feb. 25 he was stepping down, effective immediately, but will stay on with the hockey club in a position to be determined.
Assistant coach Dan Watson will take over as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. A new assistant coach has not been named.
The Walleye have struggled this season, compiling an overall record of 16-31-3. Vitucci has been head coach of the Walleye since the franchise started in 2009. He also coached the Toledo Storm from 2003-07.
“We’ve struggled with finding the right path to get this ship going in the right direction,” Vitucci said during a news conference at Huntington Center on Feb. 25.
“It was my decision,” he said. “A different voice, a different philosophy is something certainly that might be a good thing right now. I care deeply about this organization and the success of it and if it means stepping down for the best of it I was more than willing to do that.”
Vitucci’s all-time coaching record is 289-262-53. His record with the Walleye is 149-158-32.
Vitucci said he has been discussing the possibility for about two weeks with Walleye president and general manager Joe Napoli, who supported Vitucci’s decision.
“Nick is the type of guy [who] when he says, ‘I put the organization first,’ he means that,” Napoli said.
“It’s not an easy answer because there are so many things that contribute to success or failure,” Napoli said. “Nick will shoulder the blame, [but] the fact of the matter is when you look at the body of work, we’ve all contributed to that.”
The two will be discussing during the next few months what Vitucci’s new role with the team will be, Napoli said.
“We’re going to take some time and take a step back,” Napoli said. “Nick has a long list of concepts and ideas that we think could work and we’re going to take a look at those. … What we will do over the next I’d say 60 to 90 days is firm up with Nick’s responsibilities will be going forward.”
The midseason change allows Watson the chance to demonstrate what he’s capable of while also giving the team an appropriate window to find a replacement in time for recruiting and preparing for next season, said Napoli, who said he started receiving resumes almost immediately after the change was announced.
“This is a highly desirable position in the ECHL,” Napoli said.
Watson said he is “absolutely” ready to take on the role as interim head coach.
“Some coaches are satisfied with being assistants for their entire career. I am not,” Watson said. “I’m ready to dive in headfirst and really show the organization and the players for this 21-game tryout what I’m all about.”
Vitucci said Watson is “more than prepared” for the job.
“Dan’s got a great hockey mind,” Vitucci said. “Dan has done more work in his role than I guarantee you any other hockey assistant coach has done. He’s studied the game, he studies our team, he studies all the opposition, he studies the NHL, he studies everything. I wasn’t kidding when I [said I] think he’s studied more than an entire student body. Now this is an opportunity for him to step forward and be the guy.
“It’s going to be a 21-game learning experience for him too,” Vitucci said. “How he handles situations, how he handles the media, how he handles the referees, how he handles the good and the bad in the locker room. But those are things that you have to experience to be able to really understand it and get a hold of it so this is a great opportunity for him to show his personality that he has — and it’s a demanding one. He’s a stern person so he’s going to expect the most out of the players.”
Watson said every coach has a different philosophy and he plans to tweak a few things. One statistic he’d like to turn around is the team’s position as worst in the league for giving up goals.
“I was a defenseman … so we’re going to be a defensive team,” Watson said. “I want to play fast and make sure we have good puck control, making sure we have guys driving hard to the net. I want to be a team when other teams come in here or we’re on the road, we’re a tough team to play against, every single night.”
Watson, a native of Glencoe, Ontario, played pro hockey for seven seasons. He ended his playing career in Toledo with the Storm in 2006-07, where he played for Vitucci. He has coached under him with the Walleye since the team’s inaugural 2009-10 season.
“Nick’s a player’s coach,” Watson said. “He knows kind of when to push buttons, when to relax. He’s a people person. He does a great job out in the public, with interviews and just talking to people so I think I’ve developed that type of skill over the past five years as well. And just learning to be professional and give it your all every single day. That’s what he does, every day when he walks out of that office, he’s ready to go and that’s something I’ve learned from him.”
The Walleye players were informed of the coaching change at their morning practice Feb. 25 at Tam-O-Shanter in Sylvania.
“Initially when you hear it you’re shocked because it’s your coach that you’ve had a relationship with, he recruited you to come here, he’s been your coach for 51 games, so I think the initial [reaction] was shock, but I think they’re excited too,” Watson said. “I’ve had great relationships with them all year long.”
Vitucci said he made the announcement, thanked the players for their efforts and met one-on-one with a few before leaving Watson to run practice.
“I got out of there right away because it’s his team right now and he needs to have the opportunity to put his fingerprints on it,” Vitucci said.
Watson said he thought the first practice went well.
“It was a good start, high energy, good pace,” he said.
Vitucci admitted his frustration level this season has been “off the charts” as roster changes, particularly call-ups, hampered the team’s ability to establish good rhythm on the ice.
“It wears on you consistently,” Vitucci said. “There’s no worse feeling in the world [than] coming into a three-game set of games at home where you want to play well in front of your loyal and faithful fans [but] you just know in the back of your mind maybe we’re not good enough right now because of call-ups and injuries and all that.
“Everybody who knows hockey knows it’s a game of read and react, it’s the units of five, it’s the chemistry that’s developed, knowing where your teammate is or your D partner is,” Vitucci said. “We just really haven’t given ourselves a chance to really dig into that because it’s almost like wear your nametag to the rink every day. … We played so well [a few weeks ago] because guys were actually together for a couple weeks and you had your same linemate for a few weeks. That’s unfortunately been a rarity here.”
Walleye players can be called up by team affiliates Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks, but also by any American League Hockey (AHL) team, Vitucci said. Toledo’s geographical location in proximity to many AHL teams makes it convenient for those teams to call up Walleye players.
“It’s a challenging environment to be successful in,” said Napoli, who estimated there were 80 roster moves by mid-season. “But that’s not to say other franchises don’t overcome that. This is an opportunity for us to do some self-reflection.”
Napoli also hinted at more changes, saying the team will be “making some determinations” regarding its two NHL affiliates but declined to comment further.
“We’re not prepared to make comments on that today because that hasn’t been fully fleshed out,” he said.
Vitucci said it was fulfilling to help start a new team and that he’s proud of the professionalism he’s brought to the Walleye during his tenure as head coach.
“I treated players like pros and they felt like pros every day they were here and honestly I think that’s something I’m most proud of,” Vitucci said.
Vitucci didn’t rule out coaching again, but simply said he’s excited for upcoming opportunities.
“I’m really excited with what lies ahead for me. I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Vitucci said. “When we came to this decision and we knew we were going with Dan now the rest of the way, obviously it was with a heavy heart because I’ve done this for a long, long time, but over the last four to five days the heart’s gotten a lot lighter and the excitement level’s gotten a lot higher. I’m really looking forward to the challenges that I have ahead and I’m going to dive into it the same way I’ve done for the past 12 years in the coaching industry.”
In the meantime, Vitucci said he will help Watson any way he can. He also plans to be on the road recruiting and scouting for next season.
“What I’m going to do right now is give him every opportunity to succeed,” Vitucci said. “Whether that’s roster-wise, players that he wants in here, the types of players that he wants in, I’m going to go out and get those for him.”
Napoli said he’s confident the team will be able to fix any issues.
“If there’s a formula out there that works, we’ll figure it out. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Napoli said. “You create your own success out of adversity. You take opportunities like this [and] you examine them for what they are. None of us have been successful over the course of our lives without having to face something like this. It only makes you stronger, only makes you better. When you look at organizations that do extremely well, they take opportunities like this and they use it as a catalyst and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
The next game will be against the Greenville Road Warriors at 7:15 p.m. March 1 at the Huntington Center.