John Hynes will have a lot to prove in the 2020 NHL Playoffs. The salvaged conclusion to the season will be the head coach’s first shot in the postseason with the Nashville Predators, a team built to win now and expected to win now.
Firing Peter Laviolette midseason demonstrated the state of the team and the perceived ceiling that management and ownership have for this roster. Settling for anything less than a legitimate contender is unacceptable. A replacement was needed and rather than hiring an interim head coach – a common move in the NHL before transitioning to a new leader – the Predators found and hired their guy immediately.
The Predators were without a bench boss for less than 24 hours, firing Laviolette on Jan. 6 and hiring Hynes on Jan. 7. The quick turnaround illustrated the urgency of the matter within the organization. They wanted to hit the ground running and wasted no time in the attempt to turn the season around.
The team was definitely heading in the right direction with Hynes at the helm. Had the season continued as normal and without interruption, there was a very strong possibility the Predators could have made their seventh straight postseason appearance legitimately. They held the second wild card spot, were two points behind the Winnipeg Jets – owners of the first wild card spot – and had two games in hand on their divisional rival. What’s more, the Predators were playing quality, inspired hockey, winning their last three games before the pause and amassing a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 contests.
Hynes spent the pause connecting with his team. During his appearance on the ESPN On Ice podcast, the coach explained that he took advantage of the free time, connecting with his players while waiting to see how the league would resume.
“I had the opportunity at times to sit down with players at their house or my house to really get to know them,” Hynes said. “You really didn’t get that opportunity when you’re dropped in [during] the middle of the season, where you’re playing every other day. So that was really good. Just to get some connection. That was really beneficial.”
Despite the extended layoff, the Predators came out of the gate strong in their 2-0 win against the Dallas Stars in exhibition play on Jul. 30. Being thrown back into action so shortly after a lengthy hiatus is no small task. The Predators handled it well and Hynes deserves a level of credit for that. Both the Predators and Stars came in on a level playing field. Both teams were rusty and made mistakes, the Stars obviously more so than the Predators.
Nashville’s game wasn’t perfect, and no one was expecting it to be. But they still shut the Stars out and really limited their presence around Juuse Saros in the first period. In fact, the Predators recorded the first six shots of the game, holding the Stars without a shot on goal until 7:45 into the opening frame.
Hynes may have shown he has the ability to prepare his squad in a short amount of time and possibly in uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations. This will be critical, as the Predators play on back-to-back days for games two and three against the Arizona Coyotes in their qualifying series. For anyone new to hockey, back-to-back games in the playoffs are not seen, as you can probably guess why.
The exhibition game was a nice win, but it was exactly that: an exhibition. It doesn’t count for anything other than a mini tune-up. No one is going to look back at that game when grading the job that Hynes did when the season is said and done.
Success Beyond the Regular Season
Now comes the real test because meaningful success is often measured in the playoffs. Coaches are remembered and immortalized by how many championships they captured during their careers. However, it’s the postseason where Hynes’ accomplishments have been lacking or non-existent.
He missed the playoffs in three of the four seasons he was with the New Jersey Devils and the one postseason appearance he made, the team took a first-round exit.
To judge Hynes’ career and ability as a head coach from what he was able to do with a team mostly devoid of any real potential would be a little unfair. However, his AHL resume doesn’t restore any lost confidence. In 2010-11, Hynes led a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins team that finished the regular season with a 58-21-1 record, which was a league-best that year. Yet the team was eliminated in the second round by the Charlotte Checkers. The team skill was clearly there, the postseason success was not.
During the five-year stretch in which Hynes oversaw the AHL’s Penguins, the success never materialized. The team took three second-round exits and two third-round exits.
We don’t know whether Hynes is the man for the job solely based on the 28 games he coached the Predators before the world came to a grinding halt. He inherited a team and a system. And truthfully, we might not get our answer based on an irregular, never-seen-before playoff format that teams have been thrown in to after a four-month absence. But unfortunately for Hynes, the Predators are not in any position to wait around while he finds his way in the playoffs and gains experience.
Maybe Hynes will be the exact coach the Predators need, fulfilling all the high expectations and demands he inherited. His short NHL resume makes him somewhat a man of mystery. Very few, if any, know what to expect from the 45-year-old head coach, which leaves an opportunity for fans to be pleasantly surprised.
However, although it may be unfair to prematurely judge Hynes, it may also be naïve to have unwavering confidence, especially if falling behind at any point during a short five-game, qualifying series. The Predators were in danger of missing the playoffs for most of the season, so confidence may be something that this fan base – and possibly even management – is still rebuilding and do not have an abundance of.
General manager David Poile handed Hynes the keys to the car. For the Predators’ sake, let’s hope he knows how to drive it.