John Hynes hasn’t forgotten.
Just a year ago, The Hockey News‘ editors verbally interred his New Jersey Devils so far down the National Hockey League standings in a pre-season X-Ray that you’d have needed an electron microscope to find them.
“The Devils’ rebuild has a long way to go,” The Game’s Bible concluded, which was another way of saying “Forget-about-them.”
Hynes remembers. Open his memory bank and he’ll modestly allow that — over six months — his sextet made that The Hockey News prediction looks like a piece out of Mad Magazine.
Not only did the Garden State skaters exceed expectations about a-hundred-fold, but they put a cherry on the icing by gaining a playoff berth.
The final seconds tick away during the Devils' 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs, as New Jersey punches its ticket to the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“We were criticized,” Hynes allowed in an exclusive interview with MSG Networks, “and we were not proud of what we accomplished the previous year. So, we had to prove ourselves this past season — and we did.
“The players did a heck of a job responding. We had new guys such as Brian Boyle and they helped turn us into a strong, tight-knit brotherhood. And let’s not forget we had — and have — very good talent.”
But 2017-18 is in the rearview mirror. Fans still can visualize it as clear as Taylor Hall‘s Hart Trophy, but they’re now looking ahead to a new campaign. So is Hynes and one of his challenges is maintaining momentum.
“The message is ‘All Must Be Better’ and that includes a lot of areas,” Hynes explained, “such as working out now during the summer, being more physically fit and improving one’s skill set.”
John’s boss, general manager Ray Shero, was typically laid-back during the Free Agent Frenzy. Likewise, Hynes refused to get into an uproar over the general manager’s decision to remain patient and stay the course.
“I’m excited about the team we have,” Hynes countered. “This is a strong group and now we have to maximize its potential. Plus, there are always ways to improve later with trades and waiver moves. Even I can do better.”
The most significant lineup change on opening night figures to feature Keith Kinkaid as the headline goalie — with a backup to be named later.
Cory Schneider‘s recuperation from a hip injury has no specific timetable for recovery-to-be-able-to-play-regularly. Not that Jovial John is perturbed. He has watched Kinkaid rise from the dubious level to competent starter.
“Early on, Keith was raw; no doubt about that,” Hynes said. “But he’s gotten better every year and this past season he came into his own. He has become a dedicated pro with a stronger work ethic than ever before.
“That includes training as well as better nutrition. It all goes with him being a very talented guy who came to challenge Cory in every phase of the game. Until Cory is ready, we have Eddie Lack and Mackenzie Blackwood.”
Call it a stunner — and I just did — but the promotion of long-time minor league coach Rick Kowalsky as an aide both inspired surprise as well as applause since Kowalsky paid his AHL dues in both Albany and Binghamton.
“When I was with Wilkes-Barre,” Hynes recalled, “I coached against Rick and found him very well prepared. When I came to New Jersey, we developed a strong relationship.
“He’s an excellent communicator — and that’s so important these days — and a very good tactician. And since we also brought in Mike Grier, I like the recipe for our coaching depth — along with Alain Nasreddine and Rollie Melanson.”
At age 26, Hall appears on the precipice of Mount Stardom, having enjoyed a Hart Trophy season and the career year that accompanied it. Now, the question: can this guy get better?
“Taylor has just scratched the surface,” his coach enthused, “and I’ve talked to him about it this summer. There are always areas of improvement such as becoming a more complete player. Then there’s leadership and bettering skills.”
Speaking of skills, Hynes was joyful when I brought up Nico Hischier, who finished his rookie season playing all 82 games. The 19-year-old tallied 20 goals and 32 assists for 52 points. Add to that a plus-10 in the plus-minus department.
“Nico can improve physically,” John pointed out, “and that’s important for him since he won’t be taking any opponent by surprise next season. I want to see a bigger engine so that he can play his game more and better.”
“One way to compensate for the loss of a player like that is by committee. Then again, we have big players who can do the job and did it before we got Patrick. Think about Brian Boyle and Miles Wood, just to name a couple.”
When he mentioned Wood, the coach touched The Maven’s nerve. Miles is one of my favorite Devils, so I wondered whether there’s still better hockey in Randy Wood‘s son.
“Sure thing,” he shot back. “He can be more responsible defensively, but you have to remember that Miles is coachable, has a good work ethic and he has things you simply can’t teach — and that is speed.”
For me, the “mystery man” was — still is — gifted defenseman Steve Santini who played a mere 36 Devils games as compared to 27 in Binghamton. I wanted Double S to play 82 for New Jersey. Maybe yes in 2018-19?
“That’s up to Steve,” said Hynes. “We want him to be a strong, two-way defenseman. I’d like to see him push his way into our Top Six.”
Since he brought up “Top,” I couldn’t resist the temptation to note that NHL savants now regard Hynes, himself, among the league’s top bench bosses.
Typically, he dismissed the thought with a horse racing analogy: “It’s the players; not the coach. No jockey carries the horse across the Finish Line.”
The good news is that Hynes has the horses!