Back on November 7th, mired in game 5 of a 7 game losing skid, Ottawa Senators’ GM Pierre Dorion said this about the future of his head coach D.J. Smith:
“Pierre Dorion is very loyal,” said Dorion. “D.J. has done a good job and he’s shown that he can win. I’m not giving votes of confidence… D.J. is our coach and he’s going to be our coach.”
When Dorion said that, the Senators were 3 games under .500. True to his word, Smith is still the coach today and they’re 2 games under .500. They’ve lost four of their last five games, and in that span, they’ve been shutout twice and outscored by a total of 23-10
The situation in Ottawa has either become an extreme test of Dorion’s loyalty – one he stubbornly refuses to fail – or he’s been instructed to freeze spending while the sale of the franchise is being completed.
No matter how we got to this point, something’s gotta give.
On Monday night, they played a much better game, losing 2-1 in St. Louis. The Sens were the better team, but couldn’t capitalize on their scoring chances.
“The effort was there by everybody,” head coach D.J. Smith said after the game. “We gotta bear down to score. We only get one. I thought we did a fantastic job defensively – blocked 20 shots. The effort’s there but we just didn’t get a break tonight.”
Bad breaks, trust the process, the wins will come. We’ve been hearing that song for what feels like forever.
We’re now halfway through Smith’s fourth season and this is his NHL resume:
2019-20: 30th place
2020-21: 23rd place
2021-22: 26th place
2022-23: 25th place (halfway point)
It’s impossible to picture any other team in the NHL being this incredibly patient with their coach, especially when there’s no track record of success to fall back on.
Smith was hired as a rookie coach in the spring of 2019 and only five current coaches have been around longer. Of the five,
four of them recently won the Stanley Cup with their current teams (Jon Cooper, Mike Sullivan, Jared Bednar and Craig Berube) and the other one (Rod Brind’Amour) has a winning percentage of over .700 the past three years.
In fairness, Smith took over a team that had just gutted itself. He absolutely deserved the leeway and bonus time he was given. And he seems like a really nice, likeable person as well. But we’re halfway through year four of this. You just can’t write it all off to injuries or bad breaks anymore. With a sample size this big, a coach’s results are always speaking for themselves. For some of these young players, all they’ve known in the NHL is D.J. Smith, bad starts, glitchy defensive play, and missing the playoffs.
Coaches are replaced mid-season all the time in sports. And it happens for a reason – because it so often works.
Dan Bylsma, Mike Sullivan, Craig Berube, and Darryl Sutter all won recent Cups a few months after arriving in a mid-season coaching change. Obviously, no one is expecting a Cup in Ottawa this year. They’re just hoping for a strong finish to the season. Even if they kept Smith and managed to finish strongly, how could anyone possibly have any faith they’d get off to a decent start under Smith in the fall?
By every NHL coaching evaluation standard, the Senators are now well past the point of needing a change, with different tactics, a new culture and a fresh new voice. But that doesn’t mean we should expect it any time soon.
By Steve Warne