With Guy Boucher out and Marc Crawford generally believed to be a lame-duck interim coach, atop the Senators’ summer to-do list was finding a new bench boss. Some believed Ottawa would go the experienced route, with Jacques Martin and, more recently, Patrick Roy reported to be in the mix. Others thought the organization might pull from the AHL, possibly bringing Troy Mann up from the farm, or the college ranks, where the likes of Nate Leaman and Scott Sandelin seem bound for NHL duty in the not-too-distant future.
But instead, the Senators have decided to convert a big-league assistant into a full-time coach and Ottawa didn’t even need to venture all that far from their own backyard to find their man. On Thursday, the Senators announced that now-former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant D.J. Smith has been inked to a three-year deal. Financial terms of the contract were not released.
“D.J. Smith is a winner,” Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion said in a release. “We believe he is the best person to drive the development and success of the Ottawa Senators. D.J. is a great communicator and an exceptional strategist. His passionate approach, coupled with his ability to teach the game, is exactly what we were looking for throughout the process. We’re thrilled to welcome D.J. and his family to Ottawa.”
It almost goes without saying, but in no way is Smith stepping into an easy situation in Ottawa and the task ahead of him is monumental. This past season, the Senators performance was as expected. On the heels of a disastrous off-season that saw franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson sent packing, Ottawa finished dead-last in the NHL despite a stunningly hot start to the season. The ugly record went along with the league’s fewest wins, most losses, most goals against and second-worst goal differential, and Smith enters with a roster that is in clear turnover mode as the youth movement continues to take hold.
But it’s in that regard – Smith stepping in to work with youth – that he has potential to be the right hire at the right time. While he has no experience as the go-to guy behind an NHL bench, Smith spent his entire early coaching career before arriving with the Maple Leafs as an assistant and head coach in the OHL, including two years as an associate alongside Bob Boughner with the Windsor Spitfires and three years as Oshawa Generals coach, during which time he led the franchise to an OHL crown and Memorial Cup victory in 2014-15. He has experience molding young players and pushing the right buttons, and that can be a positive.
The worry, however, is that Smith’s supposed forte entering the NHL was his work on the defensive side of the ice, yet Toronto was decidedly average in those areas over the past four campaigns under his watch. To wit, from Smith’s hiring by the Maple Leafs in 2015-16 through to the end of the 2018-19 campaign, Toronto ranks 20th in goals-against per game (2.91), 29th in shots against per game (32.5) and 12th in penalty kill percentage (81.4). By comparison, the Senators ranked 20th, 31st and 30th in those respective categories over the past four seasons.
Digging in further, the Maple Leafs’ 5-on-5 numbers for the final three seasons of Smith’s tenure as an assistant were also fairly mediocre. Measured against the rest of the league, Toronto finished 27th in Corsi (59.4), 31st in shots (32.5), 23rd in scoring chances (27.2), 17th in high-danger scoring chances (10.6) and 29th in expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-a-side. The Senators finished 31st, 28th, 24th, 27th, 23rd and 24th in those categories since the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Granted, there are personnel issues at play in those numbers, but they’re worth noting.
That said, Smith’s success at the OHL level, particularly when he was the head honcho, was significant defensively. During his first season as coach of the Generals, Oshawa finished with the seventh-best goals-against total in the circuit, and their success that campaign was followed by consecutive seasons with the fewest goals against in the OHL. During the 2014-15 OHL final, too, Smith’s Generals were lauded for their ability to silence then-Erie Otters stud Connor McDavid, who was on the verge of being selected first overall in the NHL draft and turning into a big-league superstar. It’s possible that as the lead voice in the room, Smith’s group in Ottawa could find that same form.
No matter how well Smith can coach this group up, though, it will be up to Dorion to give him the talent capable of winning games on a consistent basis, and right now the Senators don’t have those pieces in place. The roster needs significant refreshing. The talented youth, which includes Brady Tkachuk, Colin White and Drake Batherson up front and Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom on the blueline, bodes well for the future, but without the depth pieces and some key free agent adds, the roster Smith will have at his disposal isn’t of a high enough quality that any amount of coaching will be able to push it into playoff contention.
So, even if Smith is the right choice behind the bench, there’s still work to do. Now, it’s up to Dorion to do it.