John Hynes began the 2019-20 NHL season as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, a position he had held since 2015. But after 26 games, having amassed only 22 points in a highly hyped season, Hynes was fired on Dec. 3. He wasn’t out of a gig for long: On Jan. 7, Hynes was named the third coach in Nashville Predators‘ history, replacing Peter Laviolette.
For the next 28 games, Nashville had a 16-11-1 record. When the NHL paused its season on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Predators were fourth in the Central Division at 78 points and a .565 points percentage, placing them squarely on the wild-card bubble.
In a matter of days, they’ll be entering a different bubble in Edmonton, as part of the 12-team Western Conference playoffs. We spoke with Hynes on the “ESPN On Ice” podcast this week about the Predators’ playoff chances, their goalie controversy and the role of a coach in the season restart.
ESPN: How has training camp been in Phase 3?
Hynes: It’s been exciting. The energy around the building has been great with the players and the staff. The excitement level with the start of something new is similar to a regular training camp. The differences are that two hours before we come to the rink we self-test at home. When we come into the building, everyone has to wear masks and get temperature checked. In our meeting rooms, we have to wear masks.
The new normal now of what’s going on with the pandemic is part of it. The social distancing is the biggest change. But then getting on the ice with the guys and things like that probably feels the most normal that we’ve all felt. So that part’s been fun and refreshing.
ESPN: Now that everyone’s back, how do you feel the last few months of preparation while in isolation worked out?
Hynes: I feel really good about it. We tried to do a good job, our whole coaching staff, in staying in communication with the players. My family moved to Nashville right after the pause happened, so I had the opportunity at times to sit down with players at their house or my house to really get to know them. You really didn’t get that opportunity when you’re dropped in [during] the middle of the season, where you’re playing every other day. So that was really good. Just to get some connection. That was really beneficial.
We had a bunch of Zoom calls about our culture and return to play. We had some guest speakers come in. We really stayed engaged mentally that way, which has been very beneficial. Now that they’re back, you can see the guys did a good job with their fitness. Their Phase 2 work was very good. The tempo of practice has been very good. But I think the reason for this is that everyone knows that you’re coming in and going into some high-stakes games, almost immediately. So there’s a lot of buzz and energy around our team right now, internally.
ESPN: Let’s talk about your goalie situation. You have Pekka Rinne, who has been the guy for so long and he’s not many years removed from a Vezina Trophy or taking his team to the Stanley Cup Final. And then you have Juuse Saros, who has been a very dependable guy lately. How do you approach this goalie battle?
Hynes: It’s two-sided, in a sense. It’s a good problem to have as a coach, that you feel like you have a very difficult decision to make on who is going to be the starter in Game 1, because that means you feel like you have two really good guys that you believe in and that you think can help you win. That’s the positive side of it.
The tough part is that eventually we’re going to have to make a decision. We’re trying to make our camp as competitive as we can. We’re going to amp up some live game situations to create some [evaluation] situations that are better than practicing. But we’re going to have to really talk through it. It’s going to be a difficult decision. But on the other side of it, I think we’re going to need both goaltenders in this format. Both guys will be ready. Either way we go, we’re going to have a guy that gives us a real chance to win.
ESPN: Do you think it’s possible to use a goalie platoon in this tournament or do you need a more traditional starter?
Hynes: It’s a good question. Take the play-in: Right away, you’re going to have a decision to make. They guys are going to come from practice. There’s one exhibition game. Do you split them, or do you play one? There’s not a lot of game action, but then you go into a stretch of three games in four days.
When you look at the amount of hockey you play in a five-game series — if it goes five games, that’s 10 days. I don’t have a straight answer either way, but you’re going to need two guys to win.
ESPN: In seeing some of the line combinations from Predators practice, it appeared the top line — Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — has been reunited. They haven’t been together a lot this season, due to injuries and some ineffectiveness. But is it your intention to give a line that has carried the team in the past a good run here?
Hynes: Exactly. They hadn’t been together for all the reasons that you mentioned. During the pause, being able to spend time with them, get to know them better and what makes them go, what makes them tick. The chemistry that they have. I think the three of them are back here [feeling] healthy and refreshed and excited to play.
I think [Matt] Duchene and Kyle Turris have played well. That line has looked like they had some really good chemistry together. But Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson have been an elite line. Hopefully they can get up and running fast.
ESPN: We wanted to ask about the bubble. They won’t be with their families. We’ve seen all the restrictions on them in the bubble. How hard is it going to be to keep the morale high? Mental health is going to be a such a huge aspect of Phase 4.
Hynes: It really is. It’s going to be a huge aspect of it. We have a lot of guys on the team that are husbands or are young fathers. Most of our guys are married. Sometimes you come in and it can bring a team together, where you’re bonded together. But I think it is important that we recognize what players are going through and support them. We also want to include the families as much as we can. Maybe that’s with family Zoom calls as a team.
It’s a big sacrifice. They’re all humans. Part of being a professional athlete is having your family enjoy it. They’re around the game, around the team, the wives are together. That’s a big part of the social aspect that brings teams together, too.
ESPN: Also on the bubble life: Athletes in other sports have told us that their teams are going to follow the protocols because they don’t want to mess things up for their teammates. We imagine that’ll be the same with NHL players: Don’t leave the bubble. Don’t go to the clubs. Don’t ruin this for everybody. Are the players going to police themselves, or are you going to have to act like a chaperone in the bubble?
Hynes: [Laughs] Now that we’re not in the bubble, our players are talking about it. If you look around at the articles being written, the players have been outspoken that it’s on [the players] to police themselves. We’re not in a bubble now, so we’re all relying on each other. I think they’re going through those protocols now, because this is probably more dangerous a time because you’re not held as accountable as you will be inside the bubble, because you’re on your own.
I think it’s going to be a big factor for everyone, having the teams police themselves. And we have to educate the players as best we can so that they understand what they can or can’t do. I don’t think there will be a lot of problems with NHL players. Once you get in that competitive situation, I’m sure they’ll police themselves the right way.
ESPN: Finally, what’s one item you plan on bringing in your suitcase to the Edmonton bubble?
Hynes: You know what book I read? I’m going to bring it with me because I haven’t read it in a long time. It’s “The Splendid and the Vile,” about Winston Churchill. I read it once, it was one of the best books I read. I read it during the pause, but I think I’ll bring it and read it again. You know how sometimes you can read a book again and get more out of it the second time? That’s the one I’m going to tee up the second time.