The road to the Stanley Cup is always difficult. But this year, in the haze of COVID-19, the NHL has been fully lost on it – still trying to safely make its way home. This week the league unveiled what they hope will be a reliable map for their return to play, finally unhitching the wagon carrying the Ottawa Senators (one of the NHL’s 7 worst teams) and what’s left of its regular season.
With the 2019-20 season now officially over for the Senators, it’s time to review what they did over the winter. Did they truly take a step forward and improve? Are they really on track to realizing their own promise of unparalleled success? They certainly appear to be. Sure, it’s all baby steps right now, but that’s because the cornerstones of this franchise are, in fact, babies – including the high end assets they’ll pull out of this year’s draft.
Nudging the infant metaphor just a little further, every kid needs someone to properly teach and lead them. Despite his own inexperience, Ottawa Senators’ head coach D.J. Smith showed this season that not only can he do that, he loves that.
“It’s the opportunity to make kids better,” said Smith. “The opportunity to get up every day and do something you love absolutely energizes me.”
Smith and the Sens finished the abbreviated season with 62 points, almost what they had (64 points) the season before – a season that cost Guy Boucher his job. But Boucher’s bunch (and later Marc Crawford’s) had the advantage of playing 11 more games and could chuck over the boards players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. While the improvement under Smith wasn’t headline-grabbing, the change in culture was apparent to everyone around the team.
“He instills winning,” says Senators’ play by play man Dean Brown, who’s seen every coach come and go. “Everything is about winning to him. Seeing who can unwrap their gum the fastest is a thing with DJ because it’s just another thing to win.”
Smith made it clear on arrival there are no shortcuts to winning. “I’m a guy that’s going to hold the players accountable. I’m a coach that’s going to make the guys work hard. I’m intense, but I’m also going to be a players’ guy in a way that they’re going to know I trust them. But they’re also going to have to do it a certain way. Players don’t need a friend, they need a coach, but they also sometimes need a pat on the back and I’ll be there to do that. I get to know people first, then coach them second.”
Smith also wants guys who can find another gear in big moments. “Ultimately, those are the guys that are going to stick around, the guys who can push through some adversity and willing to play tough, hard hockey. It doesn’t mean hitting or fighting. Being able to hold on to pucks, go to the net, be willing to get cross-checked, be willing to keep guys off our goalie. These are the things that are going to check the box.”
One of the great stengths of any first year coach is that he’s someone different; a fresh voice. Coaches obviously get fired because their team is losing and there’s nothing more tedious for a player than hearing the same guy, day after day, delivering coaching sermons and game plans that fail.
To most observers, communication with his players emerged this season as Smith’s biggest strength. Boucher was also an elite communicator, saving his best for the media, delivering masterful daily hockey dialogue in both languages. But he didn’t exactly invite input from the players. Smith just turned 43 this month and had his own 8 year professional playing career so he knows a thing or two about talking to today’s players.
“He’s a communicator,” says Brown. “He talks to everybody abut everything all the time. Players today want open, honest communication. They get that from D.J.”
The most important evaluation always comes from the guy with the power to fire you. GM Pierre Dorion was thrilled with Smith’s first season in the league.
“DJ’s done a tremendous job,” said Dorion in a Zoom media scrum this week. “First and foremost, he makes it a pleasure for all of us to get to the rink every day. I don’t think I’ve met a person with more positive energy. As a coach, he brings great structure. He’s a fantastic communicator – he knows how to talk to the older players; he knows how to talk to the younger players. He knows how to get the maximum out of them. If we can give him the right pieces here, we know he’s going to help make this a championship calibre team in a very short span.”
Smith chose two former NHL head coaches to be his assistants this season in Jack Capuano (former New York Islanders head coach) and Davis Payne (former St. Louis Blues head coach). If you’re an insecure coach, you’re probably trying to avoid a setup like that – bringing in people who can not only do your job but have way more experience at it. Smith didn’t blink at that. He’s boisterous, confident and approachable, and very much a disciple of the notion that if you surround yourself with the best people possible, you’ll be that much more successful.
So, was the 2019-20 season a success? It’s often said, you are what the standings say you are. But that doesn’t apply to a team in rebuild; one that decided on a full gut job less than three years ago and now slowly rebuilding with new, superior parts. The 30th place Senators deserve to be where they officially finished this week but the entire season was a learning and maturing process; figuring out how to play the NHL game the right way with the right work ethic.
That said, whenever it is the Senators start playing hockey again, expectations for Smith and the team now rise considerably next season. If the record doesn’t improve, fans and media will be far quicker to criticize. That changes nothing for Smith.
“So many people say they don’t read (the criticism), but they do,” says Smith. “I really don’t. I don’t have twitter. The only thing I’ll do is go on TSN and check the highlights. Even if I did (read the criticism), I believe in myself enough to just keep doing what I’m doing. There’s no time to be filtering negativity, you just gotta keep pushing on.”
Given every great coaching asset that Smith brings to the rink, you’d have to think that, if the rebuild fails, it won’t be because of coaching.
By Steve Warne