Failure to Launch: D.J. Smith Takes Responsibility for Senators Poor Start

OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 05: Ottawa Senators Head Coach D.J. Smith during third period National Hockey League action between the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators on November 5, 2022, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the midst of another terrible start, the Ottawa Senators recently gave their fans something to cheer about. The team had a very nice stretch, winning 4 of 5 games, including two entertaing victories over the Rangers and Sharks on the weekend.

Fans allowed themselves to dream, just a little, just for one shining moment, even checking in on the Eastern Conference standings to see what’s what. After Claude Giroux pounded home a slap shot, breakaway goal Saturday night to finish off an exhilerating home victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Sens had clawed their way to within 6 points of the final playoff spot in the East.

But that hint of hope barely lasted 3 days. And that’s how it is when you’re in a hole, trying to chase down so many teams on front of you. As the Sens pulled a no-show in a Tuesday night loss to LA, several teams in front of the them have spent the past few days showing up on time and getting the job done. And just like that, in a matter of a few days, the Sens are 10 points out of a playoff spot with 7 teams to climb over.

In his post game media availability, Senators head coach D.J. Smith stepped up to the microphone and ripped his team’s performance. But he also took some responsibility.

“We were just flat and gave up way too many chances,” said Smith. “We didn’t check hard enough and that’s on me. Our preparation to start the game starts with me as the coach. And that is certainly unacceptable. My job is to make sure these guys are ready to play. Maybe we should have morning skated. We didn’t morning skate, we were loose and the game got away from us in the first period.”

To be blunt, Senator fans are growing accustomed to poor starts, and not just at the beginning of games.

For a third year in a row, the Senators needed barely one month to eradicate all their room for error. And every team needs that room. For example, the Florida Panthers were the top regular season team last year and lost 18 games in regulation. But that was sprinkled over an entire 82 game season. The Sens are just 25 games deep this year and they’ve already lost 14 times in regulation.

In the pre-season, Boston was seen as one of the teams Ottawa would have to catch to make the playoffs. The Bruins have already lapped the Sens with 41 points to Ottawa’s 21. Like deposits into a bank acccount, Boston now has its rainy day fund, the room for error they need to get them through slumps, injuries, or hot goalies.

Meanwhile, even if the Senators suddenly find their game, consistently showing up on time, they’ve already burned through all their room for error.

What’s remarkable is that Smith is somehow surviving yet another poor start to a season – the one thing we all thought simply could not happen if he wanted to keep his job.

It’s time someone took some responsibility for that as well.

Smith’s story in Ottawa is past the point of excuses – the biggest excuse being that he hasn’t had very good teams to work with until now. Despite their flaws, this was the best team Smith has been given, by far. And they’re in 27th place.

Contending teams need sustained excellence over seven months, and Smith has only managed sputtering blips of excellence before stalling. Looking big picture, have the Senators, at least, had the gradual, noticeable improvements you might expect over three and a half years?

There continues to be this pervasive belief that the Senators are a lot better than their record indicates. That may be true, but it feels like we’ve been saying that for a long time. After three and a half years of coaching, as NFL coach Bill Parcells once said, you are what your record says you are.

There’s also Einstein’s famous, tongue-in-cheek definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The Sens need a change, not to save this season, but to set the table for next year. This team is crammed with exciting young players, filled with bravado. The last thing they need for their development is another year on the Titanic, being asked to trust the process.

Maybe Belleville coach Trent Mann can be the next Jon Cooper, Tampa’s minor league call-up who came up more than a decade ago and is still crushing it. Maybe the Sens need to overspend and bring in a proven, experienced winner. It’s safe to say that the change of ownership removes a pretty major obstacle to attracting top coaches.

Hopefully, the next owner of this team is keeping a close eye on all of this.

As for the players, Senators’ captain Brady Tkachuk was frustrated by Tuesday’s start calling it “unacceptable.” He’s looking forward to being on this road trip with his father and all the other players’ dads.

“Absolutely,” said Tkachuk. “It’s always a highlight of the year when the dads are able to come, especially with everything they’ve done for us growing up, taking us to practice and helping to get us to where we are today. So it’s a time to celebrate them for everything they’ve done. For me, it’s one of the highlights of the year when we get to have these trips.”

The fathers will be in attendance for the game in Dallas Thursday and then in Nashville Saturday afternoon. They also had to endure the poor performance against LA Tuesday night, so their sons were probably thankful they no longer need to rely on dad for a drive to and from the rink.

That would have been a long car ride home.

By Steve Warne

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