With So Many Available NHL Coaches This Summer, Would the Senators Consider Upgrading?

When the Senators decided not to offer defenceman Victor Mete a new contract this off-season, that didn’t mean they didn’t like him as a player or a person. The club simply felt it had better available current options who can make the team better. That’s how it is in pro hockey. When an NHL team is presented with an opportunity to improve or upgrade their organization, they usually do.
That applies to coaching as well. In 2019, D.J. Smith arrived in Ottawa as a head coaching rookie in the league. In his three years here, the reviews have been mixed. But Smith was handed a roster that didn’t have much high-end talent and the talent it had was raw and inexperienced. So it’s doubtful any coach could have lifted the Sens into playoff contention in the midst of this incessant rebuild.
In each of the last two years, any streaks or successes the Senators have had under Smith have come later in the season, well after the Senators had absolutely torched their campaign with a horrific first month.
The Senators now look like a team ready to finally rise from the ashes this fall, ready to play meaningful games into the spring and make some serious noise – even in a very difficult Atlantic Division with teams like Tampa, Florida, Toronto and Boston. In the same way the Senators have decided they have better options on defence than Victor Mete, aren’t there coaches out there right now who are probably better options than Smith?

Smith is a good person, an excellent communicator and may develop into a truly fine NHL head coach. But he remains completely unproven and when it comes to thriving in meaningful NHL games, he’s as green as they come. Meanwhile, how many freshly-fallen, fully-developed, superior options are going to drop from the NHL coaching tree before the Sens decide to pick one up?
  • Bruce Cassidy is available, just fired by the Bruins. Cassidy took the Bruins to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. He’s now one of just three coaches in NHL history to be fired after making the playoffs in each of his first six years as a team’s head coach.
  • Barry Trotz is out there. He won the Cup in Washington in 2018, then took the Islanders to two of the last three Eastern Conference Finals.
  • There’s also Pete DeBoer, who’s made it to the Conference Final four times since 2016, winning the Conference twice. Not to mention a number of other free agent coaches out there.
Even Smith’s immediate family might agree these men would probably represent a potential coaching upgrade in Ottawa. If the Sens went that route, there might even be mutual interest. Coaches want to know they’ll have the tools to win and be successful. The Senators emerging young roster has finally made this organization potentially attractive to coaches again.
But there’s no secret to why it probably won’t happen. These coaches want to get paid NHL market value.
Historically, the Senators don’t spend that way, pretty much across the board. Sens owner Eugene Melnyk has never wanted to pay what other teams were paying for the best coaches. Melnyk was once asked about the idea of giving a top available coach a salary of $4-5 million and responded, “Does he walk on water?”
Unlike NHL player payrolls, there’s no mandatory, minimum amount you have to invest in coaches. You can spend as little as you wish and so Melnyk always did. He’s never wanted to pay the price for a proven, winning coach so he paid the price in the standings instead.
Keeping a coach’s salary low (by NHL standards) means you get NHL rookies (Smith, Cory Clouston, Paul MacLean, Dave Cameron) or coaches with no other NHL options (Guy Boucher, John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg). After leaving Ottawa, not one of these men ever secured another NHL head coaching job.
Melnyk’s past treatment of coaches didn’t help either. For example, in March of 2016, while Cameron was actually still the coach of the team, Melnyk announced to the media that Cameron’s decision to start a rookie goalie on opening night was “stupidity.” Cameron said he coached the rest of that season feeling like he was already fired.
Mr. Melnyk is no longer with us but organizational reputations aren’t easy to shake. We’ve also seen nothing to suggest the Sens aren’t still operating the team the way they always have – keeping all costs as low as possible.
So, the smart money is on Smith getting the chance to prove he can be a top coach in the league. After taking this job in Ottawa, where he knew he wouldn’t be successful for a while, he’s probably earned that right.
If Smith cannot take a major step forward this season, and a change needs to be made, the Sens must also change how they do things. To succeed, they must invest appropriately in every department. That includes hiring the best coach available, not the least expensive one.
By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine
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