In early January, when I learned that David Poile had hired John Hynes as head coach of the Nashville Predators, I was intrigued. Growing up in New Jersey, I’ve been a Devils fan for nearly twenty years now, but I also lived in the wonderful city of Nashville, Tennessee for four years. I was lucky to witness firsthand the Predators’ magical 2017 run to the Stanley Cup Final. Dating back to their days with Barry Trotz at the helm, the Predators have found consistency from a solid core and have been a perennial playoff team for several years.
On the other hand, the Devils have made the playoffs once in the past seven years and have been a perennial basement dweller for the past few years. Many Devils fans were quite vocal in their criticism of Hynes towards the end of his tenure in New Jersey — how could he allow a reinvigorated roster, fresh with new talent, to slide so deep down the standings that playoff hopes were diminished by Thanksgiving? To the fans, Hynes and his “system” were the focal points of New Jersey’s woes. His man-to-man defensive zone coverage, heavy usage of gritty, tenacious, defensive-minded players to either set the tone or check top opposing lines, leaving point men open to limit high-danger chances, and not hesitating to throw skilled players into the dog house. Hynes and his “system” may have been part of the issue for New Jersey’s profound lack of success, but even today, there’s still inconsistency from individual players, and many glaring gaps in the roster haven’t been filled.
During my earlier days in Nashville, I got to know Justin Bradford, the author of The Making of Smashville and an award-winning host and Editor-in-Chief of PenaltyBoxRadio, a Nashville-based hockey blog. Naturally, I decided to collect his thoughts on John Hynes and his impact on the Predators, as it’s now been eight games since Hynes took over behind the bench in Nashville. The Predators are 4-4 in that span, and face the Devils in New Jersey tonight. Here’s what Justin had to say:
1) Have you seen a noticeable change in the style of play since Hynes took over for Laviolette? How has the players’ overall reaction been?
One thing I’ve noticed most is that the team is adapting to play during the game. You can actually tell that things get addressed during intermissions. It doesn’t always result in a win, but you can tell that Hynes is trying to adjust the game plan as the game goes along. That’s something we didn’t see as much of under Laviolette. It seems as if the players have been open to changes and adapting. Practices have been upbeat and hard-working. Very similar to training camp, which is understandable since he’s trying to instill a new system midseason.
2) The Hynes system seemed to be predicated on offensive tenacity and defensive calculation – it featured such tactics as man-to-man coverage, forcing low-danger point shots, and heavy usage of role players. Though he likely hasn’t fully implemented his system yet, have you noticed this in his first 8 games with Nashville?
He’s definitely not holding back from putting a player in the dog house. For instance, Ryan Johansen played around 10 minutes against Toronto. He was sluggish to start the game against Washington, but after he got a punch in the face, sat in the box for 2 minutes, he came right out and scored a shorthanded goal. Hynes is going to make the players earn playing time. It’s questionable though, that during the Leafs game, the best players still didn’t get more ice time. I think there’s still a feeling-out period going on.
I noticed during their first practice after the bye week and All-Star break that they split the team into 4 different groups on two sheets. They practiced driving to the net for tip-ins. Not just screens, but driving. They were having forwards and defensemen take shots from the top of the circle, while a player from the opposite side was driving in. This immediately played out against Toronto as if it were a set play. They tried it multiple times. I can tell that Hynes is trying to drive more action to the net. Shot quality. I think we’ll see more of him using the bottom 6 for gritty play, especially when fully healthy. Sissons will add to that. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see newly-acquired Michael McCarron get a call-up this season.
Regarding defensive play, I’ve also noticed the man-to-man coverage with leaving the points open, but I don’t think that the time of shrinking down will work as well with the personnel he has. When Ryan Ellis is healthy, maybe that’ll even things out better, but I don’t trust Yannick Weber, Jarred Tinordi and Matt Irwin to be able to play that way and quickly transition it to an offensive opportunity the other way.
3) Have you noticed a faster pace of play/overall speed as compared to Laviolette? In New Jersey, Hynes often used the phrase “fast, attacking, and supportive” to describe how he wanted his team to play.
I see the team as having a little more ability to be free-wheeling, although some players seem apprehensive to that. That might just be muscle memory from a system instilled in them for years. If anything, I’ve noticed Mikael Granlund looking WAY more comfortable since the coaching change.
4) Are you hopeful that the Preds can push through to make the playoffs and maybe even finally win the Cup?
I wouldn’t necessarily say hopeful. They’ve been a roller coaster. They get whooped by the Leafs and then beat the Caps IN Washington. If we see a little more consistency, that’ll increase the hope. With how mediocre the Pacific is, they should be able to secure a Wild Card spot, given the games at hand they have. After that, who knows. If they can play in the gear that we see them hit for 10-15 minutes a game and turn that into more of a 45-minute effort, anything is possible. But overall, it’s on the players. They have the talent on paper. Most of this season has been a lack of mental fortitude and pushback when their backs are against the wall. That’s not how a team wins a championship.