For Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith, it was another challenging hockey season. His squad not only missed the playoffs again – quite badly – they also had to deal with a seriously frustrating amount of injuries and postponements that constantly disrupted chemistry and momentum.
Smith found a silver lining at the end of a difficult season, accepting an invitation to be an assistant coach for Team Canada, which finished second last weekend at the World Hockey Championships in Finland. The three week trip was a positive experience for Smith and a nice getaway for his family. But now he’s more than ready for a little down time, telling Postmedia he’s now going to golf for a month straight.
For a hockey man, the golf season is never very long when there’s so much work to do. Soon enough, Smith will be back in rinks, watching and evaluating – preparing for the new season ahead.
When Smith took the job three years ago, no one could look at Ottawa’s roster and expect overnight success. He wasn’t walking into a good situation and everyone knew it. GM Pierre Dorion was still learning on the job, trying to properly rebuild a hockey team while trying to appease the game’s most frugal, volatile owner.
But it’s fair to say the grace period is over for Smith. He can’t afford another poor season and definitely won’t survive another rancid start that takes the Senators completely out of playoff contention after just 20 games.
Ottawa’s first 20 games the past two seasons:
According to NHL insiders, that’s not very good.
So it’s a big year for Smith, not just in Ottawa, but for his career. Should things go sideways again this fall, his phone won’t exactly be blowing up with NHL head coaching offers. No one’s impressed with “Coached in Ottawa, missing playoffs all four years.” Interestingly enough, since the Sens went to the Cup final in 2007, they’ve fired seven head coaches and not one of them has been able to land another head coaching job in the league.
Smith is already the fourth longest serving head coach in Ottawa Senators’ history. He currently stands at 209 NHL regular season games coached, trailing only Rick Bowness (235), Paul MacLean (238) and Jacques Martin (692). By the end of the calendar year, Smith will either be moving up into second place all-time or be moving back home to Windsor.
Meanwhile, Dorion has also been given ample time to show progress on his end. He took over as GM in the spring of 2016 and the Sens immediately went to a conference final the following season. But just as quickly, things unraveled. They plummeted to second last overall the following year – not unlike Montreal’s experience this season. In both cases, it was like cables being cut on a penthouse elevator. With the team doing poorly, the decision was made to sell off high priced free agents for picks and prospects.
That was four years ago. For comparison, that’s the same time the New York Rangers publicly announced their rebuild. The Sens finished 27 points of a playoff spot this year while the Rangers are currently in the Eastern Conference Final. That’s incredible, even taking into account the obvious, shiny advantages New York has on Ottawa’s current situation.
In normal circumstances, Dorion would be facing the very same pressure Smith will next season. But this isn’t business as usual and things are a little unclear. While there’s absolutely no doubt Smith answers to Dorion, who does Dorion report to on hockey matters? Who exactly decides his fate?
With the passing of Eugene Melnyk, the club has been passed down to his daughters, Anna and Olivia Melnyk. Do they want to be long-term NHL owners? Do they want to be heavily involved like their father was? Until we have those answers, Dorion answers to a three-person board made up of Melnyk’s friends. The group is composed of:
- Sheldon Plener: Senators director and secretary
- Larry Zeifman: Senators Director and Chair of the Audit Committee
- John Miszuk: Senators Senior Executive Vice President – Chief Administrative Officer, not to be confused with the former Philadelphia Flyers defenceman of the same name.
The background of all three men is business and/or law. Dorion would certainly answer to them on issues of money, but when it comes to strictly hockey-related decisions, Dorion may be at the very top of the food chain during this transition. So if next season starts poorly, it’s likely Dorion will still be in a strong enough position – with two and a half more years left on his contract – that he’ll be allowed to push Smith out and satisfy the wolves at the door.
The good news for Smith is that there’s every reason to believe it may not come to that. The Senators’ luck in the injury department can only improve. The talented young core will have another year of maturity and development under their belts. The club will be adding a pair of North Dakota grads in Jake Sanderson and Shane Pinto, both healthy again, both blue chip prospects, and both ready to be full-time, high impact rookies in the league. And everyone expects a trade for a top 6 forward and/or top 4 defenceman.
And Smith definitely has the traits you want in a coach today. He’s an excellent communicator with a positive “get ‘er done” energy. Like the kids on his team, it’s been baptism by fire, making mistakes and learning from them. For that reason alone, he’s a better coach than he was three years ago. At 44, he’s not far removed from his playing days, so his empathy for today’s young players would be better than most. He’d definitely have a good sense of what matters to them – what makes them tick.
On the surface, Smith really seems like a good fit for this group. But if they stumble out of the gate again, he’ll be the one who falls first.
By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine