Does anything surprise you in the world of coaching anymore? Like really surprise you? The saying coaches are hired to be fired may be funny, but it’s seemingly true. Good coaches are hard to find, which is why it’s crazy to think that the Washington Capitals didn’t do everything humanly possible to keep Barry Trotz. Surprisingly, the Vegas Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant midway through 2019-20 after taking the team to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons prior and winning the Jack Adams Award in 2018. It’s also shocking that the Florida Panthers parted ways with Gallant while on a road trip and seemingly left him to find his own way to the airport during the 2016-17 season. Okay, the Panthers’ one was probably a little more justified from a hockey strategy standpoint than the first two examples, but let’s never forget that the Panthers literally fired Gallant while on a road trip!
However, back to the Golden Knights for a second. If you’re active on social media, you’re probably aware of the conversation/stat that in the Golden Knight’s four-year history, they’ve been to the Conference Final three times. If you’re not a Vegas fan, cue the eye roll, and seen as this is a Nashville Predators’ story – and don’t worry, we are getting to the Predators – eye roll away. Anyway, those three Conference Final appearances are two more than the Predators’ one, which may be slightly alarming considering Nashville’s first season was back in 1998! However, what’s also interesting is the fact that the Predators, despite their significantly longer existence, have had just one more head coach than the Golden Knights.
It’s clear that the only general manager in the Predators’ history is not trigger happy when it comes to firing head coaches. David Poile likes continuity. He appears to prefer giving a coach a chance to implement his system, letting it grow and seeing what can become of it. Right now, as we sit in the Predators’ offseason, many may be content with current head coach John Hynes returning to lead the team once more, and that opinion is valid, but is selective memory playing too much of a role here?
You know? Selective memory – the tendency to remember only what one wants to remember. The Predators’ 2020-21 season was almost like a movie script. They were down and out. Everyone had all but give up on them and just when all seemed lost, they staged a remarkable comeback. They were kind of like the Rocky Balboa of the NHL. You know, if Rocky turned his game around, made the playoffs and then was eliminated after falling apart in the final frame in each of the last two contests. Okay, saying it out loud, it’s a bit of a stretch, but just go with it.
The Predators’ Jekyll and Hyde Season
From March 15 until the end of the regular season, the Predators amassed a 20-7-1 record, which was the fourth-best mark in the league. That play helped the Predators climb out of the Discover Central Division’s basement and pass the Dallas Stars for the fourth and final playoff spot.
So as mentioned, as we sit here, three months away from the start of another season, many fans may be feeling optimistic and excited that Hynes will pick up the reins once more and lead the Predators. And if he can help the team continue from where they left off, that excitement may be warranted.
The problem is the first half of the season cannot be ignored. Before the charge that re-sparked the hockey passion in Nashville, the Predators were 11-16-1. Only the Detroit Red Wings had fewer points in the division.
Through the team’s first 28 games, the Predators had the fourth-lowest goals for per game, the third-highest goals-against average and by far the league’s worst penalty kill. It was explained that the team battled COVID during the shortened training camp, causing a lot of disruptions. But should it have really taken 28 games to get back on track?
So, the Predators were one of the worst teams through the first 28 games and one of the best through the final 28. It makes you wonder if the Predators start slow next season, will there be any panic because of how the 2020-21 season played out? Will there be an air of confidence knowing that the team can turn it around? Well, the issue with that is the Predators pulled off the improbable when they secured a playoff berth after the start they had last season. The chances of that happening again may be slim to none. Secondly, a miraculous push like the one we just witnessed doesn’t set the Predators up for success. Playing at a level where there’s zero room for error, especially for more than two months, is taxing. Then the reward for all that hard work and resiliency is a date with one of the better teams in the league.
If we were living in the mid-to-late 2000s, then there wouldn’t be much of an issue. The Predators just making the playoffs more than 10 years ago was an accomplishment and considered a successful season. However, after playing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the only next step is to hoist the ultimate prize.
Yes, the recovery during the second half of the season is something to be proud of, but taking a step back and looking at the entire campaign, it’s hard not to consider the year as anything but a failure. If next season is similar to 2020-21, then the Predators will just be continuing that same regression that seemingly started after they were eliminated by the Winnipeg Jets in 2018, a regression that cost Peter Laviolette his job.
Hynes hasn’t really shown that he’s a coach that can lead an elite squad. This doesn’t mean that his record should be marked, and he shouldn’t at least be given a chance. But at the same time, there’s nothing to show that the Predators should wait an inordinate amount of time for him to provide results. As mentioned, Poile has clearly shown that he prefers to avoid a coaching carousel situation, and there’s some merit to that. However, after his six seasons in the NHL as a head coach, maybe we’ve seen who Hynes is: a coach who doesn’t make waves, leads teams to middle-of-the-pack results and nothing more.
Now wait a minute, you may be screaming, “the Predators were one of the best teams in the NHL for the second half of the season. That was stated literally a few paragraphs ago!” To address that, well, you’re right. The stats don’t lie and neither do the wins. But can you honestly and confidently say that the Predators’ resurgence was down to the leadership of Hynes and not the play of Juuse Saros?
Bigger Predators’ Hero, Hynes or Saros?
The Predators goalie had an MVP-type second half of the season. He at least should have been in the Vezina Trophy conversation, but that’s a debate for another day. Saros was spectacular for the last few months of the year. From March 17 until the end of the regular season, he had the league’s best 5v5 save percentage (SV%) among goalies who played in 10 or more games during that stretch, he led all goalies in goals saved above average (GSAA) during 5v5 play, and by a large margin, it should be stated. Saros also boasted the best 5v5 high danger GSAA. There are more incredible numbers displaying the young goalie’s excellence, but it merits its own story.
The problem is, we’ll never know how the Predators would have fared without Saros. Would the team have experienced similar results with Pekka Rinne in net? Was it Hynes’ system that aided the elite play we saw from Saros? Again, we’ll never have the answers to those questions. But because of that, Hynes has earned the benefit of the doubt, it’s only fair. He has earned another shot to show what he can do, but it should be on a year-by-year basis until he leads the team to something monumental or can show consistent progression. As it currently stands, Hynes’ contract expires after 2021-22, should he not receive an extension. It gives the Predators the perfect and easy out if there isn’t dramatic improvement next season.
There has been a culture established in Nashville where the team sticks by coaches for many seasons and sometimes through thick and thin. But that shouldn’t guarantee Hynes anything beyond 2021-22. And maybe that culture also needs to change. The Predators need results, the championship drought has gone on far too long.
It could be argued that we live in a “microwave society,” meaning we want everything now. We feel we need products, information, results, etc., immediately. You see it from attention spans to the necessity of so-called “elevator pitches.” Right or wrong, that mentality has somewhat seeped into the world of sports. If you can’t show you can win quickly, there may not be much room for you in the league from a coaching standpoint.
Professional sports can be a cutthroat business and arguably, many coaches have been fired inexplicably. But right now, it would be completely justified to consider Hynes on a season-by-season basis. If the Predators experience another campaign similar to last year, Hynes being relieved of his duties after just two-and-a-half seasons should be one more move that isn’t surprising in the coaching world.
I graduated from Mount Royal University with a degree in Journalism with the hopes to pursue a career in sports media. I have been following hockey for many years at various different levels. Whether playing, watching or writing about it, hockey has played a massive role in my life. I was the sports editor at The Calgary Journal as well as a sports columnist for The Calgary Reflector. Follow on Twitter: @A_Grant27