Coming into a season with an improved roster and heightened focus on the start of the year, DJ Smith has been the focal point of outside pressure and criticism surrounding this Ottawa Senators team. Much of the criticism has been related to his decisions with the defense over the last three years and how he deploys his players throughout a game. After losing two straight games, and adjustments continually coming late, the "Fire DJ" crowd has been very vocal lately.
So let’s look at a few of DJ Smith’s coaching decisions from recent years that have led to this conversation.
Slow to Implement Zuuuuub
One of the first red flags fans noticed was DJ's initial evaluation of Artem Zub. Now a fan favourite and a steady top-four defenceman, Zub was scratched for the first few weeks of the 2020-21 season in favor of veterans Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson. Zub had just signed as a free agent and was preparing to play the North American game for the first time.
That, in combination with limited time to get looks at Zub before the season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was DJ's reasoning. Despite the coach's reservations, Zub was proven internationally, with a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics and a successful KHL career. It took Smith eight games to implement Zub in the lineup, which may have contributed to the resulting horrible start, going 1-6-1 in those contests. For reference, the Senators went 6-8-0 in Zub's first full month in the lineup that season. Coburn and Gudbranson were both traded later in that season for a 7th-round pick respectively, reflecting their value at that time.
Overuse of Thomas Chabot
A long-standing criticism of Smith has been his overuse of Thomas Chabot. Every year, Chabot is near the league leaders in TOI per game, often north of 27-28 minutes. In previous seasons, it was somewhat understandable, as the Senators' blueline had been incredibly thin for several years. However, as the defense has improved, Chabot remains playing nearly half the game, despite the emergence of Sanderson and Brannstrom as very capable of taking on more responsibility.
In an article by Ian Mendes of The Athletic (who appeared this week on The Sens Nation Podcast), Mendes shows that Ottawa has a win % of 0.148 when Chabot plays 27mins+ and 0.575 when he plays less than that, over the past two seasons. As Mendes also notes, Chabot will tend to play more when the team is down late in the game, so maybe it doesn't fully correlate, but it sure is a shocking stat. With Sanderson looking more and more like the best two-way blueliner on this team and Brannstrom’s new-found confidence, there is no reason Smith should continue this long-standing pattern and it should be further cause for concern if it continues far into this season.
Mind-Boggling Deployment of Nikita Zaitsev
The largest point of contention regarding the coaching decisions has, without a doubt, been DJ's deployment of Nikita Zaitsev. Since the Senators acquired Zaitsev, he has often been a mainstay in the lineup and playing top-four minutes despite the eye test AND analytics displaying atrocious results. This has led many to reference his long-standing relationship with coach DJ Smith, going back to their time in Toronto, as to why this is the case. Whether it's an off-target pass, losing puck battles, or just poor positioning, it is clear that he does not belong on this team if the Senators expect to be in the playoff conversation.
Ottawa is 0-3 this season with Zaitsev in the lineup and has had noticeable mistakes in each loss. By all accounts Jacob Bernard-Docker, drafted in the 1st round of the same draft as Brady Tkachuk, is thriving in Belleville and likely would be an upgrade. Although roster decisions are not made by the coach, he insists on playing vets like Zaitsev big minutes rather than giving someone like Dillion Heatherington a shot, who looked capable in pre-season, in a limited role. Any minutes “leftover” could be going to the younger, better players who have proven to be FAR more effective.
Image Credit: Hockey-Reference.com
At the end of the day, most of Smith's perceived missteps have come on the defensive side of the game which may have reflected in the Sens being one of the worst defensive teams in the league for a few seasons now. While general manager, Pierre Dorion, is furiously trying to improve the talent, Smith needs to consistently show he can walk his "best players will play" talk. Otherwise, I find it hard to believe a coach that struggles to get the most out of his defense core will last long on a team with Stanley-Cup aspirations.
By Ryan Hyndman | Sens Nation Hockey