John Hynes and the Nashville Predators are in 1st place in the Central Division, 2nd place in the Western Conference, and are tied for the 3rd most wins in the NHL.
While it’s still relatively early in the NHL season and “miles to go before they sleep”, it’s a measure of success that many, especially those outside of Nashville, did not see coming for the “competitive rebuild” Preds of 2021-22.
Consider their resume so far this season:
- First team to win 20 games (achieved on January 1st vs. Chicago)
- 2nd best points percentage (.657) in Western Conference
- 7-2-1 division record
- 12 road wins (2nd best mark in NHL)
- 7th in goals allowed per game (2.63)
- 14th in goals scored per game (3.06)
The Preds also have two players with a shot at individual end-of-season awards: Juuse Saros for the Vezina Trophy and Roman Josi for the Norris Trophy. Tanner Jeannot has been making some noise on the Calder Trophy front as well.
All of this is a remarkable achievement for a team that many expected to miss the playoffs this year. Many expected teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars (Preds are 3-0-1 against those teams so far) to finish above them in the division. Some even called the Preds a lottery draft pick possibility and thought they might have their worst season in franchise history.
(A Twitter poll I ran on September 20th showed that only 34% of Preds fans, at least the ones that follow me, thought they would be a playoff team this year.)
But here are the Preds, one of the best teams in hockey by most measures, facing the second half of a season as a likely playoff team.
How does John Hynes, who just had his two year anniversary of being named head coach in Nashville, approach this? How does he craft a message to his team that acknowledges the success they’ve had but also prepares them for the rest of the season?
John Hynes: “We want to continue to grow”
Playing with a certain identity and mental toughness has been a core tenet of John Hynes’ message to his team since he got here in January 2020. And it doesn’t sound like that will change with success.
“How we want to play and the identity we want to play with, that message doesn’t change,” Hynes told the media on Friday. “We’ve had some success here, there’s still a lot of hockey left to be played. It’s important that we grow as a team. That where our game is at now… we don’t want to be the same team now that we are 10 games from now, 15 games from now, 30 games from now. We want to continue to grow and get better.”
Growing and getting better is something all teams try to do. The areas of growth for the Preds aren’t as obvious as they might have been in years past. Improving the penalty kill, defensive and scoring depth, perhaps, but overall the Preds do most things well on the ice.
The most notable is their physically imposing style of play.
The Preds are one of the more physical teams in the league. They relish using their size and strength to win puck battles along the boards and they are never afraid to back down from a fight (the Preds currently lead the NHL in fighting major penalties).
Fights are old hat and, if we are honest, do nothing to win hockey games. But they do send a message to opponents that playing the Preds will not be easy or especially enjoyable. And the Preds also do well in blocking shots (11th in NHL) and hits (11th in NHL), two other categories that denote physicality.
From Hynes’ comments, it doesn’t sound like the emphasis on being a physically imposing team will change anytime soon. And they might even improve, if Hynes’ messaging hits the mark.
But what about his overall message to the team? How will it change now that the team has had success?
Preds will face “best effort” from opponents now
“The old quote where if you give a man success or power, that’s when you really see their character,” John Hynes explained. “It’s how you respond when having success. Not letting off the gas or changing your mindset, but having a hunger and a mindset to continue to improve, because although we sit in the standings where we sit now, there’s a lot of hockey left to be played and we want to make sure that we continue to grow and get better. And that’s been a strong message to our team.”
Here’s John Hynes’ response to my question about coaching this 1st place #Preds team and if it’s difficult to avoid “changing the message.”
Lots of insight here about the team’s character and identity. pic.twitter.com/N7oqFhiv3K
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) January 7, 2022
It’s become clear recently that the Preds’ reputation precedes them. On Tuesday in Vegas, the Preds were taking on their toughest opponent to date, the Pacific leading Golden Knights. From the opening puck drop, it became clear the Knights were aware of the Preds’ physical style.
That game finished with 89 combined hits, with the Preds tallying 55 of them. The Preds walked away with a 3-2 win in regulation, mostly behind Juuse Saros’ outstanding 41 save effort.
A similar result occurred on Thursday in Los Angeles. The teams combined for 63 hits (the Preds had 32) and 28 penalty minutes, including a fight between Brendan Lemieux and Mark Borowiecki. The Preds won 4-2 in regulation. This time it was a 46 save night for Saros.
“Right now we sit in first place in the Central and have a pretty good record in the Western Conference, so right now you know you’re going to get the other team’s best game. A lot of times it could be a measuring stick game. You’re not gonna catch anybody by surprise.”
And as we’ve grown accustomed to over the last two years, John Hynes has had his team mentally prepared to face battle-ready opponents.
“The mental preparation and understanding that we need to be ready at our best night in and night out, because when you’re in the situation you’re in now, most likely you’re gonna get the other team’s best effort,” Hynes said. “It’s something that we are certainly on it and have been messaging to our team.”
— Featured image via Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports —