Renew John Hynes’ contract? I can’t believe that’s even up for debate.
Well, maybe I can after that playoff series.
Such a miserable showing in the NHL playoffs is earning the Nashville Predators’ coach deserved criticism. But hadn't he already earned the right to be retained? That’s judging Hynes by a logical standard that gets applied to all professional coaches: A group of millionaire athletes bought in and played their hardest for him.
Hynes really did get the most out of these Predators – to the point that there wasn’t enough left in the tank by the end. Their physical “identity,” as Hynes called it all season, became a curse as it once was a blessing.
Such a dismal finish to the season, while grim, wasn’t all that surprising. Monday night’s 5-3 victory in Game 4 by the Avalanche at Bridgestone Arena polished off a one-sided sweep that had been telegraphed for weeks, even before goalie Juuse Saros was lost for the postseason to an ill-timed injury.
With the Predators, hopes were raised this season. Then they were dashed when it mattered most.
To be critical of Hynes for the latter is fair. But it also requires an acknowledgment of the state of the roster he was supplied by general manager David Poile, who should share blame for the playoff dud, and what it took to make the playoffs this season with a team that wasn't supposed to get there.
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The effort and urgency that Hynes was able to coerce out of this team was necessary
“We were a team that we weren’t picked to be anything,” Hynes said. “We were picked seventh in the Central. We were picked not to be in the playoffs. We formed an identity that gave us an opportunity in the regular season to be a team that can compete for the playoffs and get into the playoffs, and I commend the guys for that.”
It has seemed a given to me that Hynes’ status shouldn’t be a lingering question for 2022-23, especially if Poile’s status is not. (All bets are off on Hynes if Poile's return becomes uncertain).
But it was odd that the Predators didn't announce anything before season's end to confirm Hynes’ return.
Pair that with Monday’s surprise news from New York of the Islanders firing Barry Trotz, and the prospect of a reunion with the Predators’ popular former coach makes fascinating fodder for an offseason that started much earlier than Hynes and Poile would have liked after what had been a largely encouraging regular season.
The Predators, for much of the way, played a lot differently than they’d been accustomed to in the years before Hynes’ arrival in early 2020. They played with an edge. They pressed teams and bullied them with a physical forecheck and a physical mentality. They led the NHL in fighting majors and hits per game.
There’s room for criticism in hindsight, but this was a smart way to give an outmanned team a chance to beat more talented opponents with Saros playing well.
It worked. It was fun to watch. It helped create career-best seasons for forwards Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg, each of whom topped 40 goals and bested the Predators’ all-time single-season scoring record. Improvements for those star players were a credit to Hynes. Particularly Duchene, whose buy-in and production had been an enormous question mark entering this season.
“The one thing I’m proud of this team: We worked hard all year,” captain Roman Josi said. “Even if games didn’t go our way, the work ethic was always there.”
The Predators' hard-charging approach got them to the playoffs. Trouble was, the style caused too many penalties – that was a problem all season – and it wasn’t sustainable physically for 82 games.
For those who play video games, you can tap the turbo button only so many times before your character is flat-out exhausted.
That seemed the case for the Predators’ season.
By April, they’d clearly hit a wall. They were outscored 34-56 in the final 11 games. They didn’t win a game by more than one goal for the final month.
“The first half (of the season), we came out and played really well, played really aggressive,” Josi said. “It seemed like the last 20 games or so, we couldn’t find that aggressiveness. I don’t know. We’ll definitely look at it.
"I think you’ve got to play your best game down the stretch coming into the playoffs. We didn’t do that this year.”
The Predators ended up losing eight of their final nine games, including an inexplicable collapse on the regular-season finale that proved devastating to their playoff chances. Blowing a lead and losing 5-4 to a bad Arizona Coyotes team meant the Predators would have to face the Avalanche in the first round instead of the Calgary Flames.
What’s scary about this season – regarding the Predators' future – is how many things uniquely lined up in the Predators’ favor. In addition to Forsberg and Duchene, young Tanner Jeannot was a revelation. Saros was an All-Star. Josi might win the Norris again.
With all this, the Predators barely made the playoffs and didn’t win a game once there.
This series with Colorado tarnished the Predators’ favorite new word: Identity. Because the top-seeded Avalanche were the aggressors. They easily dominated and exposed the Predators as a relative lightweight in spite of the heavy hockey they’ve leaned on this season.
You could say they showed the Predators how far they still have to go.
But didn't we already know that? Wasn't that supposed to be the case before this season?
The person most responsible for making everyone forget about those limitations was Hynes. He deserves another crack at making his approach stick for 82 games.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: John Hynes has earned the right to be retained by Nashville Predators