How the Dan Hinote hire may be the grit the Preds have been looking for

I had the opportunity to talk to Dan Hinote after he was hired as an assistant coach by the Nashville Predators. Here are my takeaways.

“The old days of the whole team going out for dinner are few and far between. So, trying to establish that culture where it’s actually a team and not a bunch of individuals after practice going off on their own direction, I think I can help bring the boys together that way—with my past and with my knowledge of the way things used to be and how teams used to be so tight. That’s still a possibility...we just have to cultivate it properly.”

This was Dan Hinote’s response to my question about the areas he felt best suited to improve on the Nashville Predators. I had the opportunity to speak with him a day after his hiring was announced by the team. Hinote replaces Dan Muse, who was let go at the end of the season and hired during former Head Coach Peter Laviolette’s tenure with the team.

This is the first major coaching hire under new and current Head Coach John Hynes, and for many, this hire was a head-scratcher. Why? Well, after retiring from his career as a hockey player, Hinote was an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2010 to 2014, before stepping away from coaching for a while. He worked part-time as a scout for the Blue Jackets until 2018, when he became an associate coach with the USA National Training Development Program; he then left that job when he was hired by the Predators. Given the known relationship of Predators General Manager David Poile with USA Hockey, this isn’t a very big surprise. However, many are wondering, why this guy?

Let’s start by going all the way back to the 2017-2018 season, which found the Predators—fresh off a Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins the season before—soaring to new heights of achievement and ruling the Western Conference. In an attempt to bolster their roster for an anticipated Stanley Cup run, former Predators captain Mike Fisher was brought back from retirement.

The results were not quite what anyone had hoped for, as the team exited the playoffs in the second round. At the end of the season, Fisher rode off into the sunset, once more, without a championship.

Then came 2018-2019. The season started with the re-acquisition of veteran Dan Hamhuis—and, as the trade deadline drew near, David Poile started making moves once again. This time, the new arrivals to Nashville were gritty, large-bodied veterans Brian Boyle, Wayne Simmonds, and, for some reason, Cody McLeod. Boyle and Simmonds made sense; McLeod seemed like a reach. Peter Laviolette said everyone in the locker room was all smiles when he showed up. And we all laughed and said, well, smiles in the locker room are what wins Stanley Cups.

And, once again, the Predators made their way out of the playoffs with a first round loss to the Dallas Stars. Boyle went to the Florida Panthers, Simmonds to the New Jersey Devils, and McLeod to the AHL’s Iowa Wild.

The majority of the criticism levied at the team by many journalists, including me, followed the same theme since the 2017-2018 season: The Predators looked like they rolled over at the first sign of adversity and didn’t play with much “jam.” The team tended to take a solid lead and then coast toward the finish line, leaving their opponents to capitalize on the aforementioned lack of “jam”—and, mostly, that the team played like they had no identity.

I still stand by this criticism. If you look back at the trade deadline acquisitions and the additions of veteran players, it seems that David Poile agreed with these criticisms. Bringing back Mike Fisher, at the time, seemed like more than a “feel-good” move for the team, as Fisher hadn’t been off the ice for very long, but hindsight reveals this to be the first in a series of many moves to try to re-establish that “something” that was missing. It didn’t work with Fisher.

So, Poile went out and got a solid duo of grinders in Boyle and Simmonds to bring grit on the ice—and, for some reason, Cody McLeod, who rarely even saw the ice and was disastrous when he did. Going back and looking at this move through the lens of Hinote’s hiring, McLeod wasn’t brought in for what he could do on the ice. McLeod really was actually just taking a roster spot for his presence in the locker room. But that didn’t work either. Peter Laviolette, famous for his “jam” speech, was fired mid-season the next year because he couldn’t seem to coax the jam out of the group.

When the most recent trade deadline approached, David Poile, at the helm of a team that seemed poised between barely making or (for all you pessimists out there) barely missing the playoffs, stood pat and made no moves. It’s likely that he was unwilling to part with any more picks and prospects for what would amount to an anemic run at the Cup. Despite the season getting cut short by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the Predators entered the qualifying round of the playoffs, and then swiftly left the playoff bubble after an embarrassing loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

In the aftermath of all of this, David Poile made comments about giving the youth a chance. This had the dual impact of raising hopes that many of the exciting young prospects in the Predators’ system—like Philip Tomasino, Eeli Tolvanen, and Yakov Trenin—might have a chance to see time in gold, while also foreshadowing gloom with the potential departures of veteran UFAs like Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund.

With a new head coach and the possibility of a much younger team, what the Nashville Predators needed was someone who could help establish a strong team culture. This is where Dan Hinote comes in.

Hinote has been working with the USNTDP for the past two years. He has coaching experience at the NHL level, but his most recent experience as a coach is with younger players. Poile wants to let the youth have a chance. If you want someone who understands these younger players, you have to have someone who’s used to working with younger players.

Poile also likes gritty veterans that are great “in the room”. Dan Hinote fits the bill for both. Poile has tried for several years to pick up a locker-room guy at the deadline. I truly believe these moves have been attempts to give the team a bit of the rough edge they had during the 17-18 season. They all fell flat and left Poile, and the team, looking little silly. This time, Poile didn’t make a play for a gritty/rough-edger at the trade deadline. He waited for the offseason. Instead of getting someone who would have to occupy a roster spot, he got someone who could stand behind the bench.

Look, I’m not worried about on-ice accolades as far as my coaches go. Hinote called himself a “below-average player” during the interview. If being a great player made you a great coach, then Wayne Gretzky would be the greatest hockey coach of all time. Good coaching comes from understanding. You have to understand the game and how to play it, sure, but you also have to understand your players.

I’m not convinced Peter Laviolette understood his players very well—take a look at the Kyle Turris situation if you don’t believe me. John Hynes, I believe, is a different story. Throughout the return to play training camp, Coach Hynes regularly spoke about mental toughness and getting into the right mental state to compete. He talked at length about discussions he’d had with Ryan Johansen, specifically, about tapping to the that aspect of his mentality. It yielded pretty darn good results for Johansen and his line in the qualifying round. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate to overall success for the team, but you can’t rely on one line to do all of the work and expect to get anywhere.

Of course, any good coach knows that the rest of the coaching staff has to be on the same page. Hinote mentioned early on in his media availability that “relationships are key.” You have to have the trust of the players before you can have their ear. Everything I’ve read about Hinote is that players, coaches, and even the media love him. For several seasons now, starting with the un-retirement of Mike Fisher, David Poile has tried to bring a “glue” guy that unites the players because they all want to play “for” their teammate. In Hinote, Poile must believe he’s found the “glue” guy, but instead of being on the bench, he’ll be behind the bench.

Hinote mentions wanting to build a culture that sees the team as a family unit and not just as individuals that come together to play hockey a few times a week. I think making this happen should be a priority for the team. In my opinion, teams that roll over the way the Predators have seemed to do the past few years do so because they aren’t playing for each other. Sure, some guys will step up and make moves and always play their hardest, but quite often, when a teammate isn’t willing to play hard, it makes it much harder to make up the difference and apathy starts to set in. If the guys on the team started to view each other as a family, they would be more willing to play for each other and not just with each other. It sounds corny, but it makes sense.

Hinote also said, “I was a below-average player, but I played with a lot of great players. My stories don’t necessarily correlate, but [Peter] Forsberg stories do, Kariya stories do. I was a student of the game, even back then, and I would watch these guys. The more you’re around them, the more you pick up if you’re paying attention. I was very fortunate early in my career to be surrounded by that and now I’m able to impart their habits and the things they used to do the young players.”

In my own experience as a coach, I’ve had many, many athletes who were just plain better than I was. Why did they listen to me? What made me a good coach? Good coaching is like good teaching: you have to be able to translate experience. Hinote says he can translate what Hall of Famers did, but in reality, he’s translating his own experience with those players to the athletes he’s coaching. No, playing with Paul Kariya doesn’t mean you are as good as Paul Kariya, but playing with Paul Kariya can mean that you have direct insight into the way he trained, practiced, and prepared for a game, both physically and mentally. A good coach can take that insight and give it to his players.

Hinote also believes he’s there to help “from a physical perspective. Trying to get that extra juice into somebody’s game and helping them understand why it’s important—not just to do it because we’re telling you to do it, but here’s the effect—every time you finish your check, every time you get a stick on a guy, every time you do the hard thing, it pays off. By the time the third period rolls around, they just don’t have the energy any more because you’ve done all the right things in the first and second.”

This exact thing right here is what the team has been missing. Why the significant drop off in the third period? The assumption was that the team was coasting. I don’t think it’s that intentional. I think the team used skill and talent to get a lead. Once that lead was established, they stopped going on the offensive but held the lead with the help of good goaltending to cover their play. I believe this lulled them into complacency and by the time the alleged coasting starts to show, it’s late in the second period or the start of the third period.

This is what we have been seeing—a team that didn’t have to work too hard to get a lead, then only worked as hard as it needed to work in order to stay ahead. By the third period, the unfinished checks, the unchallenged zone entry, and the refusal to play with “juice” have allowed the opponent to conserve energy and mount a comeback on a Predators team that isn’t putting in the work early to wear the other team down. And that’s when minor mistakes lead to major problems. Blame gets placed. Apathy sets in. Players don’t play for one another.

Hinote, who probably hasn’t been watching every Predators game for the last three years, knew this about the team without having to watch the same tired drama play out over and over again. He knew it right away and called it out on day one. The team isn’t finishing checks, isn’t getting sticks on their opponents, and by the time the dreaded third period rolls around, the impact of these failures manifests on the scoreboard and—eventually—the standings.

Simply put, I think Hinote may be the exact person for the job he has in front of him. I think he fits very well with Hynes’s outlook on coaching and what he expects out of his team. I believe Hynes and Poile see Hinote as a guy that can help them get that out of the roster. Dan Hinote is a guy that players want to play for; he can teach them to play for each other as well. By doing this, he will be able to draw out that unquantifiable something extra that every player has inside of them—the idea that any one of them can be a hero on any given night.

Hinote will help rebuild the culture of the team from the ground up by teaching them to play for each other, not just with each other. I hope, as I’m sure many do, that this is the beginning of a culture change that will reimagine this team and put them back in contention for the Stanley Cup.