I met Senators' head coach D.J. Smith on his first day on the job, making the media rounds on a nice spring morning in 2019. Smith agreed to do a magazine interview so we wandered around the Market, talking hockey, looking for some scenic backdrops for photos. We then sat down for about half an hour for a one-on-one interview at an Italian deli.
I liked Smith right away. He was open, friendly, boisterous and quick to laugh. As we parted, the last thing he said was, “It may take a little time, but we'll git 'er done.”
I've lived in Richmond, Renfrew, Smiths Falls, and Ottawa. I've played beer league hockey all over Eastern Ontario. Still do. I walked away from the interview absolutely certain that most Ottawa Valley hockey fans would love D.J. Smith. The mention of "Git 'er done" just sealed the deal.
How are ya now?
I seen ya the legion Friday night.
Smith's strengths as a coach are pretty clear. He's an excellent communicator and motivator – a player's coach.
Playing pro hockey certainly helped. Coaching in the OHL and being an NHL assistant for 3 years obviously helped too. And, at 44, he's not far removed from his playing days, so his empathy for today's players would be better than most. He'd definitely have a good sense of what matters to them – what makes them tick.
But there's no getting around it. He rolled in as a rookie NHL head coach. And just as it is for any rookie player, the jump to the big leagues is huge. Like most jobs, you learn by doing. Until then, as they say, you don't know what you don't know. And mistakes are inevitable.
Case in point, many fans are still scratching their heads over the end of the Buffalo loss on Tuesday night. There were two minutes left with the Sens were on the power play, down by a goal. The face off was in Buffalo's end and the top power play unit had just been out there for the first minute of the PP. Smith could have called a timeout to give that unit some rest. Instead, he sent out his far inferior second unit. And he didn't pull his goalie at that time to give the Sens a 6 on 4 situation. Hey, the Sens might have lost either way. But they missed an easy opportunity to improve their chance of tying the game.
Even assistant coach Davis Payne was ready to roll with the whiteboard to draw up a play during the timeout he assumed was coming. For the record, Smith claimed he wanted to make sure they were set up with possession in the offensive zone before pulling the goalie. But you have a lot better chance of winning possession off the draw if you're 6 on 4.
Smith has had issues with NHL roster construction too, apparent tunnel vision for players like Nikita Zaitsev or Josh Brown, who captained his Memorial Cup team. With respect, it is clear to all that Brown's footwork, puck skill and processing just aren't where they need to be right now. Brown continues to dress to provide the physical edge that Smith wants for his roster (see Scott Sabourin), but the value of fighting as a singular NHL occupation is at an all-time low, a trend that's likely to continue. You have to be able to play. As for physical play, it's always going to be valuable, but only if the defensive basics are at an NHL level.
Smith has also had issues identifying NHL readiness. It's hard to imagine Artem Zub started last season on the taxi squad. Erik Brannstrom's development certainly could have been handled better. Jacob Bernard-Docker and Lassi Thomson look like upgrades on what they started this season with.
As an outsider, not privy to the whiteboard conversations, it's difficult to know why the Sens seem to struggle in their own end. Is it too much youth? Lack of enough talent? Not holding top players accountable when they cheat? It may well be a coaching problem. I don't know. D-zone coverage certainly hasn't been good enough in general. But when it's bad, it's really bad. Just look at the first two months in each of these past two seasons under Smith. No team should be able to play themselves out of contention in under two months. But the Senators found a way.
The Sens had a 2-0 lead in Washington Saturday night and went into the most passive D-zone coverage you'll ever see. For long stretches at 5 on 5, it looked like a Capitals' power play. The comeback felt inevitable. The strategy of leaving Alex Ovechkin wide open in front of the net seems controversial at best.
Hopefully, Smith will get better at communicating what's needed in D-zone coverage and/or dole out appropriate consequences for those who cheat this system, no matter how big their paycheque is.
Anyway, I don't come to bury Caesar nor do I come to praise him. I'm here to say that this is what the Senators signed up for. Eugene Melnyk doesn't like to spend anywhere close to market value on head coaches. So, naturally, he's only able to attract entry level coaches or coaches with no other NHL options. When you go with a rookie coach, mistakes are guaranteed. It's the same thing with players. You just hope they figure things out and begin to thrive one day.
Frankly, as an aside, it's mystifying to shell out big dough to Tkachuk, Chabot, Batherson, Murray, White and soon Norris, Stutzle and Sanderson, then hand them over to an inexperienced coach who's still learning the league himself.
While it seems like he's been around a long time, Smith still hasn't coached the equivalent of two full seasons in the league – 161 games coached, as of this writing). As with the young team itself, it feels like many (if not most) of the hard lessons should now have been learned, and with some off-season help from hockey operations, better things should be expected moving forward.
No, Smith doesn't need to lead the Senators to the Stanley Cup next season, but the team does need to start making major strides...like, right now. And I'm cheering for the guy. Is he going to emerge as a smart, innovative hockey mind? An average one? Below average? He's now got enough good cards in his hand that it's fair to begin truly judging his work.
In fact, it's probably well past time to shine a very bright spotlight on D.J. Smith and see what he can do now, moving forward.
The young guys are starting to mature and there are more young stars on the way. If the club keeps making the same mistakes or starts to just spin its wheels, then Smith will have to be held accountable and make room for someone else to come in and git 'er done.
By Steve Warne | Sens Nation Hockey