Two years into John Hynes’s tenure, was he the right coaching choice for Nashville?

There were raised eyebrows when Hynes was named head coach in January 2020. Has he delivered on what was promised?

On January 7, 2020 - just one day after the surprising mid-season firing of Peter Laviolette - Predators General Manager David Poile announced John Hynes as the new head coach of the Nashville Predators. While GMDP seemed confident in the decision, many in Nashville were surprised and perhaps even a little alarmed by the hiring. Hynes didn’t have a lengthy NHL coaching resume, having recently been fired by the New Jersey Devils just three and a half seasons into his National Hockey League head coaching career. Still, Poile declared John Hynes the best choice for the struggling Predators and was emphatic that Nashville was getting Hynes at the right time in Hynes’s career.

The skepticism for the Hynes hire has followed Poile through the two years of the coach’s tenure. Even with the recent success the team has found, there are still those in Nashville’s hockey community who question if David Poile’s confidence in the head coach has been misplaced.

I recently went back and re-watched the press conference held on January 7, 2020 announcing John Hynes as the new head coach to gauge if what Poile promised has been delivered. It has certainly been a tumultuous ride for Hynes since that presser two years ago with roster changes, a team teetering on the brink of a massive rebuild, and of course, the COVID pandemic that threw the hockey world - and world at large - into chaos shortly after Hynes took the reins in Nashville. Hindsight is an opportunity to compare what both Poile and Hynes said in early 2020 to results over the last two years. Under challenging circumstances, has John Hynes proven to be the right choice for the next Nashville Predators head coach? Using their own words, let’s take a look.

“…a track record of effectively developing young players and successfully motivating veteran players.” - GM David Poile on Hynes

While many fans questioned the Hynes hire based on his limited NHL head coaching experience, it’s become evident that Hynes’s experience with young players in the USA Development Team and the Wilkes-Barre AHL team has proven to be one of his strengths. For Poile, who at the time in 2020 was wrestling with whether to begin a youth rebuild in the franchise, this had to be an important consideration with this hire. Although a full youth rebuild hasn’t had to happen, the contributions of young talent like Tanner Jeannot and Yakov Trenin to the Preds’ success under Hynes can’t be understated.

Many of the Nashville faithful fretted when Tanner Jeannot was protected during the Seattle expansion draft, but it is clear now that what Hynes (and Poile) saw in the frisky forward at the end of last season was substantial enough to develop into the Calder-conversation-worthy play that Nashville sees on the ice now from #84.

Of course, Hynes’s decisions regarding young talent haven’t always gone unquestioned.  The head coach took quite a bit of heat for healthy-scratching the 2017 draftee and “promised child” Eeli Tolvanen early last season.  While fans and media alike questioned the coach’s decision to sit Tolvanen, Tolvanen’s long-term development and overall game have improved under Hynes’s tutelage even with those healthy absences. Easing young players into full NHL minutes is something Hynes has done recently with Phil Tomasino as well. While fans may question the amount of ice time or line assignment for fresh faces like Phil Tomasino, Hynes’s track record for getting young, hungry talent like Jeannot, Trenin, and Tolvanen to competitive NHL levels should earn him a bit of leeway and a lot of grace making those type of coaching decisions moving forward.

It isn’t just young talent that has improved under the guidance of John Hynes. The consistent improvement of the veteran talent on the roster points to the wisdom of the Hynes hire as well. The much-maligned Matt Duchene, having his best season by far in a Nashville Predators uniform, has talked frankly about the importance of conversations with Hynes in the offseason that helped elevate his play.

An even earlier testament to Hynes’s ability to coach veteran players well is Mikael Granlund, who statistically blossomed shortly after Hynes took the reins in 2020 and has continued to improve to be one of Nashville’s best contributors.

“Identity...back in our game.” - John Hynes on what the team needed to address

One of the buzz words heard frequently from this Nashville Predators team this year is “identity”. When asked about the success that has landed the Predators at the top of the Central Division, Hynes and players alike credit playing to their team identity. This is a vision Hynes had from that very first press conference. Hynes laid out an identity he wanted to see this team play to from the start - aggressive on the forecheck; strong netfront presence; play to the inside of the ice; creative, high-pressure offense; and a five-man committed and structured defense. The team needed to be “tough to play against” - a phrase Hynes has often used to summarize the identity he looks for every game, every shift.

While it has perhaps felt slow to develop for Predators fans, the buy in from the players to this “identity hockey” is more regularly evident this season than we’ve seen since that 2018 Presidents’ Trophy year or the Stanley Cup run the season prior. When asked about their success, players have often cited the clarity of the team’s identity in helping everyone understand expectations and highlight clear adjustments when needed. The success Nashville is seeing now was a large part of John Hynes’s vision from day one.

“Cultivate a winning culture in the locker room...” - Poile on Hynes

It’s no secret that Peter Laviolette left the Nashville Predators locker room in a chaotic state. John Hynes was tasked with leading a team that didn’t appear to be on the same page as far as a consistent style of play, team identity, or commitment to excellence. Looking at where the Predators had been and how the team was performing at the end of Laviolette’s tenure, it’s understandable that the locker room in January 2020 was frustrated and chaotic. Uniting the team and creating a wining culture was perhaps the greatest challenge John Hynes faced.

What we’ve seen from Hynes since becoming the head coach is a leader who isn’t afraid to make bold moves to cultivate a change in the locker room - from roster changes, clear requirements to earn playing time even from the “stars”, very frank internal conversations, and transparency externally with the media and fans. Hynes described himself at that introductory press conference as being very direct in his communication, and that directness and clarity - which has been difficult at times - has cultivated a winning culture in the locker room and a sense of trust and respect in his dealings with media.

During the #FreeTurris fiasco at the end of Peter Laviolette’s tenure, Lavy was not interested in discussing his decision making process for benching Kyle Turris for much of November 2019, despite the fairness of the questions from media.  It is hard to imagine a scenario in which John Hynes wouldn’t be willing to offer an explanation for such a controversial roster move, as was the case with Ryan Johansen’s ice time last season or Rooco Grimaldi sent to Milwaukee. Hynes’s directness, clarity, and professional relationship with players and media has gone a long way to creating an environment for success.

Hindsight, especially in these times, is an interesting gift. The uphill road that Hynes had in front of him on January 7, 2020 got a lot steeper just a few months later as the world faced a global pandemic. Navigating 2020 - and large periods of 2021 - tested every NHL coach, player, and organization. John Hynes had just 63 days with his team before COVID shut the league down. Hynes’ first true full length training camp didn’t occur for another twenty months - in September of 2021. The challenge of coaching through COVID protocols, bubble cities, cancelled games, and shifting rosters could be used as an excuse for the Predators and John Hynes still finding their footing together, but Hynes isn’t a coach interested in offering excuses when he can offer solutions.

After rewatching that January 7, 2020 press conference, there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that Poile made the right decision in hiring John Hynes as the head coach. There may have been questions and doubts that January afternoon, but a careful listen and critical look back definitively show that John Hynes has been the coach that the Nashville Predators needed.