D.J. Smith: Is it Time to Cut Bait?
As the Ottawa Senators approach the 20-game mark of the season, five things are clear:
a) The off-season acquisitions of Pierre Dorion have all panned out.
b) Jake Sanderson is prime time ready now.
c) Statistical output has improved in many categories over 2021-22.
d) Shane Pinto has successfully recovered from his shoulder surgery.
e) The Ottawa Senators are still a mediocre hockey team.
I don’t think anyone could deny that Claude Giroux has fit like a glove and been everything they had hoped. Alex DeBrincat hasn’t gotten the goals everyone had hoped. However, with 14 points in 18 games and numerous chances to score, one can’t help but think it’s just a matter of time before the levee breaks. Cam Talbot came right off the injured list to play just like he had last season in Minnesota. Even Tyler Motte has shown himself to be a capable player who was brought in to fill the void left by Alex Formenton.
From a statistical perspective, the team's face-off winning percentage is up 5.5% over last year to 53.4% and has them sixth in the league. Teams who win face-offs control the puck and puck possession is obviously critical to generating offense and playing less in a defensive posture. Then again, the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche are dead last in face-off winning percentage at 43.8% and yet they're ninth in the league overall having played fewer games than anyone ahead of them.
Your special teams penalty kill percentage and power play percentage should total 100 or better and the Senators are at 99.44 (21.54% PP & 77.9% PK). Special teams win games right? Though the Senators are tied for third in the league for most penalties taken at 94. When you strip out the fighting majors and coincidental minors, they've had 65 power play opportunities and had 55 penalties to kill.
The Corsi numbers for and against aren’t great (CF 21st and CA 28th overall) and in Goals For, the Senators sit 19th in the league at 57 and they sit 23rd in the league in Goals Against with 64. A differential of minus seven isn’t the end of the world and they have lost their last two games 5-1.
None of this would suggest a team being in the top half of the league by any means. However, there is much more good than bad about what this team is doing individually and collectively.
Despite these positive trends, the recent trip through the state of Florida looked exactly like it did last year. The Senators were completely outmatched by their opponent in both games and were it not for some stellar goaltending from Anton Forsberg, they would have been blowouts. Instead, they were within five minutes of getting points in both games
SO HOW DO THEY FIND THEMSELVES 31ST IN A 32 TEAM LEAGUE?
The six wins in 18 games wouldn’t look as discouraging if it weren’t that in the first 18 games, the Senators have already had a six-game losing streak where they only collected one point.
Say what you will about the loser’s point, it will keep you in the thick until you can figure things out. It may still be a loss, but it is a more digestible loss. The losses to the Leafs, Panthers and Lightning were all within sight of overtime.
You could easily look at the injuries that have plagued this team since the start of the season.
1) Josh Norris out for the season
2) Artem Zub missed nine games
3) Thomas Chabot out for the last four and timeline TBD
4) Alex Formenton yet to play
These are tangible losses to be sure. However, 11 players have played every game including core players like Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, Shane Pinto and Jake Sanderson as well as key acquisitions like Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat.
Also, when you look at teams like the Boston Bruins who started the season without Brad Marchand for the first nine games and Charlie McAvoy for the first 13 and find themselves atop the overall standings, your argument loses steam pretty quickly.
When you strip out all the excuses that can be provided, you have to look at who is running things behind the bench. The one constant for the last three plus seasons has been DJ Smith.
Smith has compiled a fairly pedestrian record of 87-115-25.
I have come to the conclusion that, even if the Senators rally and make something of this season and players continue to move forward in their development, it is time for the Senators to move on from him.
We’ve all heard the expression that “You can’t fire 20 players, but you can fire one coach”. It’s a tired narrative that seems to suggest that you don’t want to fire the coach, but you feel like you have to fire someone.
This is not the case here. This wouldn’t be change for change’s sake. This would be change after three plus years of allowing a coach to develop himself at the NHL level with very little in the way of tangible results to show for it.
This is a team that is looking at being a playoff afterthought before the end of November for the second season in a row.
Smith has seemingly been on the hot seat for at least half of his tenure with the club. I couldn’t bring myself to condemn him given the lineup he had up until this season. Despite how things were throughout the pandemic and the lineup he was given, I was always impressed with how he kept the room on his side. He never turned on his team in a post-game presser and he never had one of those stick throwing tirades in practice for the benefit of the press in attendance.
The core players were taking steps forward in their development and there seemed to be hope at the end of the tunnel.
You can only sell that for so long before fans want to see some food on their plates.
I don’t see a team that has quit on its coach. I see a team that's fragile. I see a team that outshot San Jose 13-3 in the first period and only came out of the period with a tie. I see a team that came out in the second period, yielded a goal off a terrible sequence of in-zone coverage breakdowns and folded. Even a sniper like Alex DeBrincat chose to pass the puck to Derick Brassard on a 2 on 0 breakaway rather than shoot.
This isn’t uncommon for teams struggling. Teams rely on their coaches to get them out of those tough times.
Brady Tkachuk is doing what any captain would do by trying to absorb the responsibility himself and trying to quash the negativity in the Twittersphere. He has also done his part by bringing his A game every night.
It’s the fact that DJ Smith still has the room or a good portion of it that would suggest to me it's time to move on. It’s okay to be a player’s coach if the players perform for you. If they don’t get the results despite your popularity, the only logical conclusion is that whatever you're selling as a coach isn’t good enough.
Aside from the record that isn’t anywhere near expectations, here are my principal reasons why I believe a change is in order:
LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY
It’s one thing to scratch players like Dylan Gambrell, Parker Kelly, Mark Kastelic or even Mathieu Joseph. Those are the low hanging fruit. Those aren’t your core players on whom most coaches rely to get their message across and to keep the rest of the team in line.
Against the New Jersey Devils, after pulling within 3-1 and getting a power play late in the second period, DJ put out five forwards for the power play. The logic of that can be debated. However, Tim Stutzle was on the point and the puck hopped over his stick and created an odd man rush. This can happen to anyone. My issue is that Stutzle gave a very half-hearted effort to correct things in the defensive zone and his man scored the fourth goal and sucked the life out of any momentum the Senators had.
The power play ran into the third period and Tim Stutzle was out on the ice to start. Errors can be forgiven. Lack of effort should never be that easily forgiven. Stutzle should have sat the rest of the game.
I can’t recall Smith ever playing the heavy with a core player who wasn’t competing or for taking selfish penalties.
I’m not the biggest John Tortorella fan, but his tough love helped bring Vincent Lecavalier in line and was a big reason for the Stanley Cup they won.
PLAYER ASSESSMENT/LINEUP DECISIONS
Going back to Artem Zub joining the team during the pandemic and spending the first nine games in the press box, I have to admit that I have always found DJ’s assessment of his own team to be a bit perplexing.
By the time Zub became a regular in the lineup that year, the season was already shot. I understand that the Senators would not have likely made the playoffs regardless. That said, it didn’t take long for him to move to the top two pairings.
I agree that the coach should own the lineup card. However, I can’t help but think that Nikita Zaitsev would still be playing on a nightly basis if he weren’t waived and sent to Belleville by Pierre Dorion.
The team should be playing their best players and, for this season in particular, I have never felt that way about what I have been watching.
Younger players really have to work to get into DJ’s circle of trust and veteran players seemingly can’t play their way out of it.
LACK OF STRUCTURE
Referring back to the Florida trip and the recent home stand, it would seem to me that teams in the upper echelon of the league are able to far too easily break down the Senators’ system on the forecheck and when exiting their own zone.
Even during the four-game win streak in the first home stand, there were signs that the Senators were going to have to outgun teams to be successful.
Structure seems to exist on power plays and the chances are there to score. It’s also hard not to notice how things go sideways when structure breaks down. The team ends up getting hemmed in for long periods and the second goal by San Jose was a primary example.
Zub failed to get the puck out of the zone on the penalty kill and the Senators went into crisis mode with the puck ending up in the net.
Of the 11 losses the Senators have suffered, here's a list of some of the head coaches whose teams have beaten them:
Jon Cooper, Bruce Cassidy, Paul Maurice, Bruce Boudreau, Lindy Ruff (twice), and Sheldon Keefe.
All of these coaches have had regular season success, and most have had playoff success (ZING!)
All of those teams have weapons to use offensively and defensively but the team plays far more structured from top to bottom in the lineup.
Even the Bruins, whom the Senators managed to beat after nearly blowing a pair of three goal leads, have a new head coach in Jim Montgomery. Montgomery has leveraged structure to overcome missing pieces.
IN GAME STRATEGY
Not to harp on our beloved son and recent Hall of Fame Inductee, Daniel Alfredsson, but his getting walked in OT by Jason Pominville in the 2006 playoffs should have served as a lesson about playing forwards on defence on the power play. Talented forwards make great offensive defenseman when their teams have the puck. Everywhere else it’s chaos.
I am not against putting one out there with a defenseman to steady the rudder. However, putting two of them out there at the same time with one being notoriously weak defensively really struck me as a desperation move when times weren’t desperate.
If that were the final two minutes of the third period, the move would have made more sense. There was a lot of time left in the game and DJ threw a Hail Mary pass.
It’s one of several decisions which suggest to me that DJ is searching for answers rather than arriving at them methodically with rationale.
The Senators are in the beginning of their “window” of opportunity. Perhaps not to win the league in the next year or two. That said, it’s the next year or two where the guy you believe is going to help you win the league needs to be brought in.
Even if Smith gets things back to .500 and players are feeling good about themselves, from my vantage point, this team has gone as far as it is going to go with Smith at the helm. I don’t see a playoff team resulting from the current structure this season or even next.
There is, of course, the albatross in the form of the three-year extension that Dorion saw fit to grant Smith early last season. With two more years after this one and the ownership situation now very much up in the air, it’s not as simple as replacing the coach mid season.
That said, the search needs to start, if it hasn’t already. And despite Pierre Dorion’s statement “DJ is our coach”, steps need to be taken now to replace Smith at the end of this year regardless of any improvement. Short of pulling a St. Louis Blues 2019 run, the outcome needs to be a change in direction.
Loyalty is a great attribute to have as a person. It can be your undoing in professional sports. Smith has been loyal to certain players to a fault. Dorion can’t afford to do the same. If he wants a role to play in the new ownership scheme, he needs to convince Anna, Olivia, and the board to approve a coaching change.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey