Tales from the Other Side: A New Jersey Devils perspective on John Hynes

A writer from our SB Nation sister site All About the Jersey answers my questions about John Hynes.

I spoke with C.J. Turtoro, writer and accomplished analytics contributor to All About The Jersey, our sister site covering the New Jersey Devils. C.J. was kind enough to answer my late night/early morning questions, and provided some really interesting insight into the Predators' new Head Coach. You can find his work for the site here, contact him on Twitter, or see some of his tremendous data visualization work in Tableau (I also really want to highlight the greatest hockey viz that’s ever been created here—it’s amazing).

Bryan Bastin, On The Forecheck: What were your impressions of Hynes’ tenure with New Jersey?

C.J. Turtoro, All About The Jersey: My personal impressions were positive. Look at the 2015-16 Devils to see what he was given to start. His first three years should have been garbage, but he managed 0.500 winning percentage twice plus a playoff appearance. The next season (2018-19) was riddled with injuries no one expected him to overcome. This year’s team had awful goaltending and lacked the veteran leadership to sail through the PDO [Bryan: save percentage plus shooting percentage] storm. He needed to be dismissed, but he’s a good coach, IMO.

However, if you ask Devils fans in general, they will say that he failed to play the type of game in which a team with young, fast talent would likely excel—they wanted more offense. And there were also grips about his seemingly inconsistent accountability enforcement (less accountability for vets), among other things. Some blamed his scheme on poor zone exits and his lineup shuffling on inconsistent play. Mostly fans just didn’t like losing, though.

Bastin: What are his strengths, in your opinion, tactically?

Turtoro: He is a strong defensive coach. His PKs have been among the best in the league, and his xGA numbers have been shockingly competent when you consider the fact that Andy Greene and Damon Severson have been the most-used defenders over his tenure. This is, again, supported by Micah Blake McCurdy’s coaching threat impact isolate.

His system does a good job of getting players in space to make plays. A team that adheres to the system will see a lot of long, cross-ice passes completed, and a lot of fast break chances. That’s what his system looks like when it works.

Bastin: What were his most glaring weaknesses?

Turtoro: One weakness for this particular team seemed to be complexity. As I mentioned, his system aims to create space, but that can create chaos that makes it difficult for players to support one another if they’re not on the same page, or not where they’re supposed to be. This problem was exacerbated for the Devils by 1) having new players on the roster, 2) having players new to the NHL, and 3) incessant line-shuffling.

One tangible example is that this team will never cycle in the OZ. I mean, like, NEVER. As soon as they cross the blueline, they look for the pass to open ice. Sometimes it’s there and they get a scoring chance, often it’s not and there is a turnover. You can see evidence for this in that the Devils’ xG numbers are normally better than their Corsi ones. They were interested in dangerous possession—not possession.

Bastin: Taylor Hall said Hynes was the best coach he ever played for, and he seemed to be well liked by his players. Does he have the reputation as a “players’ coach”?

Turtoro: He is very well-liked by veteran players. Run through the interviews after he was dismissed and you’ll see a lot of support from the likes of Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Kyle Palmieri, and especially Taylor Hall. He does team trips every offseason to help the team establish brotherhood and they generally seem to appreciate it.

The only disconnect is that he held young, talented players to a higher accountability standard than vets. As an example, Jesper Bratt (leads the Devils in xGAR this season) was scratched in consecutive games this season. I can’t confirm that this was frustrating for these players, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

Bastin: Lack of consistent goaltending this season helped get him dismissed. Do you think a stronger roster of skaters will help him in Nashville with Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros both having down years?

Turtoro: I don’t think his system is more talent-dependent than any other coach’s, nor is it uniquely susceptible to poor goaltending. The Devils were the seventh-stingiest xGA team when he was fired, so it’s not like life was that hard on them. [Bryan: The Devils now sit 18th in this statistic, while Nashville is at seventh.]

Bastin: Does he have a focus on getting bigger, stronger players? Is he reluctant to play young players over slumping veterans? Will he hate me for talking about analytics?

Turtoro: He does like to have reliable veterans like Andy Greene and Travis Zajac play big minutes. And, as I said earlier, he is tough on his younger, more talented players. He doesn’t explicitly invoke analytics often, but the way he talks to the media and justifies choices in post-game pressers, it’s clear that he’s aware of the analytical results and he uses them to inform his coaching decisions [Bryan: Be still, my beating heart!].

Bastin: How do you think John Hynes will fit in Nashville?

Turtoro: I think the blue line talent will be a really interesting thing to watch him work with.  He’s going from one of the worst backends to one of the best in the NHL—zone exits and netfront play were both execution problems that he shouldn’t have as much in Nashville.