The ink was barely dry on Peter Laviolette’s pink slip before the Nashville Predators named the dismissed coach’s successor. Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after firing Laviolette and associate coach Kevin McCarthy, the Predators announced and introduced John Hynes as the third coach in franchise history.
“John Hynes is bright young coach and great leader who has a track record of both effectively developing young players and successfully motivating veterans," Predators GM David Poile said in a release. "We love his coaching resume and are confident that he has learned from every stop during his career, and has the best skill set to get the maximum potential out of our team.”
For Hynes, the hiring comes little more than one month after he himself was canned by the New Jersey Devils, a decision made after he spent more than four seasons patrolling that franchise’s bench and was able to guide the Devils to the post-season just once. And given his results in New Jersey – he was handed his walking papers after posting a 150-159-45 record, good for a .487 points percentage, in 354 games with the Devils – the Predators' hiring of Hynes is one that will assuredly be met with some confusion. After all, if Hynes couldn’t dig the once-Taylor Hall-led Devils out of the NHL’s basement, and if he couldn’t propel the team forward after what looked to be a somewhat transformative summer that included the additions of first-overall pick Jack Hughes and veteran defenseman P.K. Subban, what makes Nashville confident in his ability to fix what needs fixing in order for the Predators to save their season?
Despite his overall record in New Jersey, however, there are elements of Hynes’ coaching style that are intriguing, particularly as it pertains to the current concerns in Nashville and what the Predators may feel is their best way forward. Evident about Poile’s roster is that it has been built not to be an offensive juggernaut, but a defense-first unit that wins with a substance-over-style approach. And that might be why the Predators believe Hynes’ systems can be a fit.
Though the full-season totals under Laviolette suggest that Nashville has been among the league’s best teams when it comes to preventing high-quality scoring chances against at 5-on-5, the Predators’ performance in recent weeks has been declining. When measured across their past 10 games, Nashville ranks 25th in the NHL in high-danger chances against at five-a-side, allowing 12.5 per 60 minutes. Contrast that with Hynes’ Devils across his final 10 games with the club and it paints a picture of the limiting brand of hockey the former New Jersey coach had his team playing. Despite icing a defense corps that wouldn’t for a second be confused with one of the best in the league, let alone a top-five group, Hynes’ Devils surrendered 9.2 high-danger chances against. Not bad.
But beyond addressing the even-strength defense, one of Hynes’ first tasks has to be repairing a penalty kill that has sunk to a near league-worst efficiency. With a 74 percent success rate and a league-high 34 goals against on the penalty kill, addressing the team’s play when down a skater is a necessity. Hynes’ track record in New Jersey suggests he can do just that. Dating back to the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Hynes’ Devils surrendered some of the lowest rates of shots, attempts and scoring chances against. In fact, of the 39 coaches with at least one full season under their belts across the past two-plus seasons, Hynes’ Devils had the fourth-lowest expected goals against rate on the penalty kill. New Jersey under Hynes also boasted the fourth-best penalty kill from the start of the 2017-18 campaign on through to his firing in December, operating at 82.1 percent.
What should aid in Hynes’ pursuit of fixing the penalty kill and better protecting the high-danger areas is that he’ll have a deep stable of talent with which to work, much deeper than what he had at any point during his tenure in New Jersey. The Predators’ defense corps, headed up by Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and the presently sidelined Ryan Ellis, gives Hynes a wealth of blueline talent, and Hynes will also have at his disposal useful two-way forwards such as Nick Bonino and Calle Jarnkrok.
The hope, of course, is that improved defensive and penalty killing performances will trickle down to the goaltending, which has let down the Predators as much as anything else throughout the season. The combined performance of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros has left much to be desired, and it’s going to take one or both getting back on track – the duo has combined for an .894 save percentage – to truly right the ship in Nashville this season. Even with stouter defending and a more limiting penalty kill, if the saves don’t come, the turnaround won’t either for the Predators.
But the potential for this to be a turning point in Nashville’s campaign exists, to be sure. Hynes wasn’t brought in to weather a storm or see out the season. This is the hire of an experienced coach for the expressed purpose of putting the Predators, who entered Tuesday five points out of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, back in contention this season. Now all that’s left is to see what Hynes can do with a group that is far more talented than any he has ever had at his fingertips and whether Nashville's new bench boss can save this season from ending up on the scrap heap. No pressure.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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