It’s been more than a month since incoming Nashville Predators general manager Barry Trotz said he planned to evaluate John Hynes’ future as the team’s head coach.
That would appear to mean one of two things: Either Trotz is in the midst of an evaluation that would rival the vetting of a Supreme Court candidate or — seemingly the more likely option at this point — Hynes remains the man going forward.
Five NHL teams — Anaheim, Calgary, Columbus, the New York Rangers and Washington — have moved on from head coaches since mid-April, so if the Predators had planned to part ways with Hynes, logic says they would have wanted to get involved in their own search earlier rather than later.
One way to look at Nashville’s decision — again, assuming it’s been made: Hynes’ ability to do more with less apparently outweighed the fact he also did less with more.
Does that make any sense?
Think about it this way. The 2022-23 season was considered by many to be a make-or-break season for Hynes, who had not guided the Predators to a playoff series win in his first three seasons (two full seasons) behind the bench.
My guess is things were leaning more toward break than make for Hynes around mid-February, when the Preds played a few home stinkers — including a 4-2 loss to Arizona — that dropped Nashville’s record to 25-20-6 and seemed to signal that this veteran-laden team was an underachieving dud.
But it was right around then — just as expectations cratered — that things took a turn for the unexpected.
All of a sudden, the more Predators that departed the lineup — via trade or injury — the more the team showed a surprising buoyancy.
Between Feb. 11 and March 30, the Predators lost Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Alexandre Carrier, Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Jeremy Lauzon to season-ending injuries. Juuso Parssinen missed almost seven weeks. Between Feb. 25 and March 1, the Predators traded away Nino Niederreiter, Tanner Jeannot, Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund.
Yet the Predators, thanks in part to some tremendous goaltending by Juuse Saros and some over overachieving play from talented prospects, refused to go away down the stretch. They went 12-9-2 in the 23 games following the trade deadline, beating playoff-bound teams like Seattle, Boston, Vegas, Carolina, Calgary and Winnipeg along the way.
Nashville remained in the postseason race through 80 of 82 regular-season games.
So Hynes deserves plenty of praise for steering less experienced players such as Tommy Novak, Luke Evangelista, Cody Glass, Philip Tomasino, Kiefer Sherwood, Spencer Stastney and Jake Livingstone into productive roles.
“John has done a terrific job [with] us doing a little bit of a teardown,” Trotz said at season’s end. “I think the one thing John has done is he looked at the roster and prepared the roster and got them ready to find a way to win down the stretch. So compliment to John and his staff for that.”
But why couldn’t Hynes and his staff do the same for the Predators before all the injuries, the trades and the call-ups? Why were the Predators all but dead in the water after 50 games or so, necessitating the seller’s approach to the deadline?
To me, it appeared there was a significant disconnect between Hynes and some of the veterans for a decent chunk of the season. A number of them underperformed, and even though the players themselves deserved the blame for — at times — looking like they were going through the motions, it was still happening on Hynes’ watch.
Just how much did it frustrate Hynes?
One of his more underrated comments of the season came in mid-March, when Hynes casually unloaded a bit of a bombshell after getting asked why the team was playing so well with so many youngsters in the lineup:
“We’re very competitive every night,” Hynes said at the time. “You’re not asking or begging for effort and competitiveness. It’s naturally there.”
The good news for Preds fans is that this team is trending toward giving more ice time to the talented wave of the future, less to the veteran core of the past.
Hynes’ forte appears to be working with and developing talented youth, as illustrated by the six years he spent as head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program, guiding the Americans to a 216-113-19-9 record. He saw plenty of success on the American Hockey League level as well, leading Wilkes-Barre Scranton — Pittsburgh’s affiliate — to a 231-126-27 mark in five seasons, twice reaching the conference finals and posting at least 42 victories every year.
So from the standpoint of shaping and molding the Predators’ incoming flood of prospects, Hynes might just be the right man at the right time.
But if he is indeed coming back, Hynes is going to have to find a way to reach his high-priced veterans as well, the ones that didn’t appear to respond to the increased effort and consistency he sought last season.
Can Hynes get the most from both sets of players, pushing this Predators team back into the playoffs and perhaps even winning a round, a feat he has never accomplished in his seven full seasons as an NHL head coach?
It looks more and more as if he’ll get another shot at doing just that.