Ever since taking over for Peter Laviolette, head coach John Hynes has been candid about his reasons for various line combinations. For example, against the Buffalo Sabres, he put Ryan Johansen on a line with Austin Watson, saying that it was to shut down the Eichel line. Sure enough, it worked.
In last night’s 6-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Predators found themselves in a 4-0 hole in the second period. What happened next was a mass benching of star players: Filip Forsberg had three shifts in the second period for 2:37 of ice time, Ryan Johansen four shifts for 2:58, and Matt Duchene three shifts for 1:31. The three most expensive forwards on the Predators, combining for a cap hit of $22m, were all benched for the second period. The Predators actually ended up winning that second period of hockey 2-1, while things fell apart in the third period.
Now, John Hynes is not immune from questionable lineup decisions. Why Austin Watson gets any playing time over Yakov Trenin is a great unknown. But that’s arguing over fourth liners, not players that are going to make or break your season. Those players are Forsberg, Johansen, and Duchene. Right now, those three players are doing more breaking than making this season.
The Predators have just one forward in the top 100 point-scorers this season—Filip Forsberg at 87th overall. The next highest is Matt Duchene at 110th, one spot ahead of former Predator Kevin Fiala.
So, yes, only two Predators forwards are scoring more points than Kevin Fiala right now. Let that sink in.
Ryan Johansen is down at 146th, five spots below Nick Bonino. While Bonino is certainly having a great season, there’s still absolutely no good reason that Ryan Johansen is trailing Nick Bonino in points. Meanwhile, Matt Duchene has just one goal in his last ten games, Forsberg six points in his last ten, and Johansen six points in his last twenty, dating back to December 23rd.
If teams win on the backs of their stars, it’s no surprise why the Predators have struggled so much as of late. They are vastly under-performing and, to drive the point home, if you take each forward excluding Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene within $500,000 of their salary cap and average their point totals together, the average point total is 49.2. Ryan Johansen has 31 points while Matt Duchene has 35. They are not having “pedestrian” seasons. They are having bad seasons.
Regardless of who’s a better player or not, Hynes has to manage the locker room just like any other work manager has to navigate their team. There is a great misconception that all coaches have to do to win is play their best players, and it is so far from the truth. The quote “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones” from Miracle captures the essence of coaching. Hynes cannot sit back and reward players with ice time despite being bad. If Ryan Johansen is only going to give 70% effort each night and consistently change while the opponent is skating the puck through the neutral zone, Hynes cannot “reward” him for his poor play, even if by comparison Johansen is still outperforming Kyle Turris. That generosity of ice time is what breeds complacency, the hallmark of what ultimately did Peter Laviolette in as head coach. Yes, his players may have failed him just as general manager David Poile claimed, but Laviolette enabled that failure by rewarding players who were either under-performing or refusing to give their best effort every night.
Now, again, I think it should be Yakov Trenin instead of Austin Watson on the fourth line, but this also explains why Watson has seen an increase in his ice time. Regardless of how ineffective he may be, Watson is going to give 100% every time he touches the ice. It may be 100% of not much, but he gives his very best. Every coach at some point in time has told a player “So, you don’t want to play hockey? Fine, I know someone who does.” And, in regards to eliminating complacency, it works. The Barry Trotz era of the Predators was known for being a hungry group of competitors. One just has to look at the season’s list of injuries in Columbus this year to realize John Tortorella’s similar message is working wonders. If complacency is a big issue in a locker room, teams need a coach that is willing to make hard choices to eliminate that plague. Hynes inherited this mess from Laviolette, so now he’s stuck cleaning it up.
The leadership group has been a disappointment this season, and the three most expensive Predators forwards are under-performing. With the widespread complacency bred by Peter Laviolette in rewarding good players only giving 70% effort with ice time, John Hynes is finally taking the first steps in what will be a long process eliminating complacency within the Nashville Predators. If losing games isn’t actually a “wake-up call” as every Predator loves to call it, maybe seeing a reduction in their ice time is.