After five straight years of missing the playoffs, three with head coach DJ Smith at the helm, almost everyone agreed the Senators had to get off to a better start this season.
They had to. After all, the rebuilding days were over, they’d picked up some very good new players, and the goal was to be playing meaningful games at the end of this season.
As of this writing, through the first 15 games, the Sens are tied for dead last overall in the NHL. Most hockey experts would probably struggle to describe that as a better start.
Senators general manager Pierre Dorion is staying patient, and that’s fantastic news for Smith, whose current .367 points percentage so far is considerably worse than any of his three full seasons so far.
“Coaching is not the issue,” Dorion said Tuesday at the NHL GM meetings in Toronto. “Simple as that. Not at all. For me, it’s the first time that we’ve given a team to D.J. that can compete for a possible playoff spot. So I think we’ve got to be patient there.”
It’s now the second time in two weeks that Dorion has given Smith a vote of confidence. The thing is, the longer Dorion keeps telling people the problem isn’t coaching, the more likely they are to look for blame somewhere else. Maybe it’s chemistry. Maybe a lack of depth. Maybe they should have gotten that top four defenceman they knew they needed.
Who does those issues fall upon? Management, of course. So Dorion’s loyalty and inertia may eventually prove costly.
“I have really one wish,” Dorion said. “I’d like to see our team pretty much healthy for 20-25 games. Just one year. You’re going to get nicks and bruises, but not going out for three months or something like that. Then you can gauge things better. But that hasn’t happened with us for the last few years.”
Losing Josh Norris, Artem Zub and Cam Talbot for an extended period has definitely been a negative. But this is nothing compared to last year. Shane Pinto missed 77 games. Drake Batherson missed 36 games. Thomas Chabot missed 23. Connor Brown missed 18. Norris missed 16. And Matt Murray’s health was always in question, leading to uncertainty in goal.
So if the injury situation isn’t as bad this season, and they’ve added stars like Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat, Jake Sanderson and a healthy Pinto, why have they taken a step backward this season? How can injuries be a legitimate excuse?
The answer is that they aren’t. The problem is that, among the players getting the most ice time, including the defencemen, the Senators don’t have enough guys playing the game with a defensive conscience. That may be a personnel issue, which is on Dorion. That may be an accountability or player deployment issue, which is on Smith. It might be a combination of all those things.
Speaking of deployment, this is how the Senators will line up for their game against Buffalo on Wednesday night.
Morning skate lines with the Sabres visiting town tonight at 7.
Forsberg (starters end)
— TSN 1200 (@TSN1200) November 16, 2022
DeBrincat has been one of the club’s bright spots this season. If the club has any hopes of re-signing him, that’s tough to ask him to skate with the club’s 13th and 14th place scorers. How does Batherson, last year’s all-star in Ottawa, feel about dropping down to play on what feels like a third line?
But this is what may be needed at this stage. It may be a case of Smith trying to establish at least a little defensive conscience on every line. Giroux has it on the top line. Joseph on the second line. And Motte on the third.
If it feels like a case of just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, that’s because it probably is. And Smith has to be almost out of ideas for winning solutions with this group.
By Steve Warne