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It May Not Be as Bad as it Seems: A Defense of Sorts of John Hynes

The New Jersey Devils are near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and the hopes of making another playoff appearance is fading. Yet, there is evidence to show that John Hynes and his staff has made gains in his four seasons with the team. This post presents a defense of sorts of Hynes behind the bench.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets
John Hynes has not been bad? Yes.
James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

I am a not big fan of New Jersey Devils head coach John Hynes right now. I was frustrated enough with who was the extra skater in Carolina plus line switches in a third period that ended up not helping the cause. I was very annoyed with how overtime was handled against Detroit, a game the Devils really should have won based on their performance. The Devils had a seven-game road trip that became the 2018 Road Trip from Hell as the team went 1-6-0 and lost five of those six games by at least three goals. From that trip, I invoked the name of John MacLean in response with how terrible the team responded to any adversity in the loss to Ottawa and I was disgusted with the “compete” in Toronto. The Devils are currently near the bottom of the Metropolitan where teams are in reach if only because the whole division is a “mediocre mess,” as Mike put it on Friday.

Worse, the 2018-19 team is on pace to be the third worst team of the Era of General Manager Ray Shero. The team has 18 points out of 19 games for a point-per-game pace of 0.95. The 2015-16 team, which finished 38-36-4 and 84 points, had a rate of 1.02. The 2017-18 team that actually made the playoffs with 97 points had a rate of 1.18. The current record is still on pace to be better than the low point that was the 2016-17 season. That still is not very good.

In other words, there is reason to not be pleased with head coach John Hynes. Yes, he was brought in by Shero to coach up a re-building organization. Yes, he was behind the bench for a playoff berth last season, which was a surprising result. Yes, that playoff appearance, rightly or wrongly, raised expectations and the Devils are from it. There is indeed a lot of hockey left to be played but it only becomes harder and harder to catch up as time goes on. The best the Devils can finish is 9-9-2 for Thanksgiving, which is right around a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 NHL season. If the hope is to be competitive and play meaningful hockey late into the season, then that hope is fading now.

However, there is a defense of sorts for Mr. Hynes. Three points come to mind. The first is that perhaps expectations are not set as high as I may think. While the 2017-18 Devils made the playoffs, that does not mean the team was really ready to be competing regularly for the postseason. We may be seeing that now and, as such, not being in the picture is not necessarily a failure. This also makes one wonder what Shero is doing or will do to try to improve the team. Still, if the expectations are lower than anticipated, then the current status of the team is not so bad and so there is no need to think about changing the coach.

The second has to do with Hynes’ contract status. When he was hired, he was on a three-season deal. Making the playoffs kicked in an automatic extension for one more season. (Update: I got this wrong, the team extended him through an option on his contract during 2017-18. Thanks to MedicSBK in the comments for pointing this out.) In other words, if management does not think Hynes is doing a good job, then they can let him walk easily by season’s end. This is hinged on the fact that there may be no one better available. To me, there is little sense to pay him for the remainder of this season by firing him and putting in someone as an interim with no future in New Jersey. This changes if, say, Joel Quenneville is interested in being a head coach in Newark, New Jersey. But the point remains: if the powers that be are not pleased with Hynes, then it may be prudent to throw this season (that is increasingly likely to be lost) away, let Hynes walk, and reset for a better 2019-2020.

The third point is that there is evidence that the team has played better on the ice under Hynes.

After the loss in Carolina, I was not happy with Hynes and I wanted to see if things really have been better since his first season. I went to Natural Stat Trick for team stats at 5-on-5, penalty kill, and power play situations with additional information acquired from NHL.com and Corsica. I compared the team stats from the season so far and their ranks in the NHL (red means bottom 10, green means top 10) against the three other seasons where Hynes was head coach. What I found may be proof that Hynes has been doing good things as a head coach amid some failings in detailed, specific situations that I’ve ranted about in this past weekend.

Yes, Ray Shero changed a lot of the roster. To the point that there are only three players on the books that Shero did not sign, draft, or acquire himself at any point (Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, and Cory Schneider). However, the arrival of Taylor Hall or the signing of Will Butcher or the trade to bring in Sami Vatanen did not suddenly make the team play better overall. Hynes and his staff still had to provide instructions to the players, identify who they should play with and who they should be matched up with, help prepare the players for the game, run practices, and provide individual direction as needed among other tasks. Given where this team was in 2015-16, the 2018-19 team is at least a few steps ahead.

First, the 5-on-5 play:

New Jersey Devils 5-on-5 Team Stats 2015-2018
New Jersey Devils 5-on-5 Team Stats 2015-2018
Natural Stat Trick & Corsica

You can easily see that the Devils have been transformed from a low-event team that struggled to generate attempts, shots, scoring chances, and goals. They have improved in CF%, SF%, SCF%, and HDCF% in every season in the four under Hynes, including this ongoing season. The Devils have improved their “for” stats, which means they have been attacking more often. The Expected Goals model at Corsica has also been trending up and it really likes what the Devils have done in 2018-19. It is fair to look at this and conclude that the Devils have become a better 5-on-5 team under Hynes for the most part. While the talent level may have improved, Hynes has facilitated that talent to provide better performances. He deserves credit for that.

This table of stats is evidence that the Devils have improved in 5-on-5 play, at least in some regard, under John Hynes. If part of his job description was to improve the team, then he can feel good that has happened overall.

So what about special teams? They have been mostly consistent, for better or worse.

New Jersey Devils PP Team Stats 2015-2018
New Jersey Devils PP Team Stats 2015-2018
Natural Stat Trick & NHL.com

The power play was under Geoff Ward from 2015-16 to 2017-18. Rick Kowalsky is the man behind 2018-19. The results are, well, similar. The rate stats are all bad. The Devils’ power play struggled to generate offense then. They struggle now. This is reflected when you see the Devils spend two minutes not generating much and/or settling for shots from long blasts or wide angles because that’s how they set up in their 1-3-1 formation.

The good news is that the success is mostly there. The Devils’ success rate is a touch lower than where it was last season, but it can be qualified as good. The Devils’ rate of scoring goals is still good and is higher than the previous three seasons. I question how long it will last as it appears as the GF/60 is supported by a high shooting percentage, one of the better ones in the NHL and also better than the previous three seasons. We may be seeing the correction now as the Devils’ power play has been relatively cold as of late. But for the most part, expect the Devils to be around the league median for power play situations. They may still be in or around the top ten in terms of success rate and goals. We shall see, but the Devils have not been undercut by a relatively ineffective power play under Hynes with the exception of the 2016-17 season.

New Jersey Devils PK Team Stats 2015-2018
New Jersey Devils PK Team Stats 2015-2018
Natural Stat Trick & NHL.com

As for the penalty kill, outside of 2016-17, it’s been great. The Devils’ success rate is one of the best in the NHL. The underlying numbers in penalty kill situations are great. There are even further improvements on the rate stats compared with last season. The only penalty killing stats that do not look so hot here are the number of situations taken (which is not too far out of step from past seasons of Hynes) and the save percentage. The latter could derail some of these other good things. But a team save percentage around 86-87% should be sufficient to yield one of the more successful penalty kills of the NHL.

In total, special teams have not been truly bad under Hynes this season or truly worse than 2017-18. The 5-on-5 play has a lot of great things going for it. So why is it not leading to wins?

While the Devils have attacked more, they have also allowed a lot more in response. Just as they have taken more attempts, shots, and chances (all and high-danger ones); they have allowed more in kind. The good news is that the proportion of them has become more in New Jersey’s favor. The bad news is that attempts, shots, and chances against are still opportunities for opposing teams to score. Opposing teams have taken those opportunities. While the proportion of goals for out of all goals in 5-on-5 play is better than where it was in 2015-16 and 2016-17, it’s still below 50%, which means the Devils have been out-scored. While the Devils’ GF/60 rate is now respectable, their GA/60 rate is int he lower end of the league. Worse, for now, the Devils’ shooting percentage is around the same level of 2015-16 and the save percentage is about where it was last season. Neither rank well. As a result, the Devils’ actual GF% falls well short of the expected goals model and percentages are hurting the Devils.

Also, keep in mind that the Devils’ 2018-19 stats are for all 19 games. So that four-game winning streak as well as that 1-6-0 Road Trip from Hell is buoying matters. It is about getting to that point in the season where one or two games will not cause big swings in these stats. Besides, just as general managers and coaches and players have to make adjustments with just a few games (or even just one game at times), we have to look at the current state. While it is muddled amid a lot of poor games, the hard truth is that the 2018-19 Devils are not going to be playing a lot like that miserable-to-watch 2016-17 team anytime soon. There is reason to think that things have moved forward under Hynes. At a minimum, the team has not been utterly bad on the ice despite improved talent on the roster. There are things to appreciate and like and want to see continue. I’d like to think it is partially why he’s got a good chance to be the third-longest Devils coach in franchise history (he’ll surpass Peter DeBoer later this season).

The problem is that this is a results-orientated business. Even with the underlying numbers, 8-9-2 is still not good. It is still a record worthy of being near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The issues like putting out sub-optimal units and lines have been issues as of late. Adjustments from tactics to team mentality has not been consistent. These cannot be fully ignored. Are the improvements by the team really good enough progress for Hynes in his fourth season with the team? Is it good enough for the Devils to want him to stick around for this season and possibly beyond? Even if the answer is yes, is he really safe with how things are going?

I went into this post thinking that I would find some aspect of the team where the team has been really poor in a major area under Hynes. I did not. I found something that at least sort of defends what he has done so far and his position behind the bench. I am still not convinced he’s safe for 2018-19 if the team continues to slide. Maybe it’ll be from a bad shooting percentage (the team hasn’t scored more than 3 against non Pittsburgh or Washington teams). Maybe Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider suffer again (I remember the Road Trip from Hell). Maybe it’ll be some truly bad performances in 5-on-5 or special teams as a part of a collapse. Maybe something else can happen. I hope not. I’d like the Devils to win games and if Hynes continues to sustain gains by his players and his staff, then, that’s all good. I hope it can be good soon. Which is why I brought up the subject at all because it really isn’t; especially after this past weekend coming so close to the Road Trip from Hell. I hope those two wins over Pennsylvania teams last week weren’t a respite for struggles to come.

In the meantime, what do you think about John Hynes and his job behind the bench? Do you see the progress on the ice? Do you think he’s doing the best he can with the players he has? Or does the record trump it all and so Hynes should be worried about the current situation? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.