With hope and intrigue reaching all-time highs, I figure now is a good time to ask the question: Is DJ Smith the right man to lead this young core to the promised land?
When DJ Smith landed his first head coaching gig in the NHL on May 23rd, 2019, he knew he was walking into a situation that was far from stable. The 2018-19 season, Guy Boucher’s last behind the Sens bench, was one of extreme roster overhaul. After losing his captain, Erik Karlsson, over the summer, Boucher watched key members of his lineup like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel depart, knowing full well he likely wasn’t far behind.
At the time, morale around Sens Nation was at all time low. The team was in dead last, having already finished 2nd last behind the lowly Sabres the season prior. The part that hurt most, though, was that the season before the two most recent catastrophes was one that saw the Sens come just a single game shy of the Stanley Cup Final.
More impressively, they did so with a good roster, but certainly not one anyone thought would bring a Sidney Crosby-led Penguins team to the brink of elimination.
Perhaps undermanned skill-wise compared to the big dogs, the Sens bought into Guy Boucher’s structured, controlled, low-event brand of hockey and rode it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. As heartbreaking as it was to get that far and come up short, optimism surrounding the Sens was still high with what figured to be a good roster, led by who we thought was the right man behind the bench.
Just after the start of the 2017-18 season, with the Sens heading off to Sweden to play a pair with the Avalanche, they seemingly went “all-in,' acquiring disgruntled Avalanche forward Matt Duchene as part of a 3 team trade that saw fan favourites Kyle Turris and Andrew Hammond leave town. Perhaps jet-lagged after their trip overseas, combined with an already existing attendance issue just getting worse, and a financially strapped owner going off the deep end, the team would quickly plummet to the NHL’s basement less than a calendar year removed from reaching the final 4. Given the catastrophe we were witnessing, the roster upheaval that would soon follow was upsetting, to be sure, but definitely not a surprise. In pro sports, rarely does a head coach see the other side of a major rebuild.
Sure enough, on March 1st, 2019, Guy Boucher was fired after serving nearly 3 full seasons behind the Sens bench. Not unlike his first attempt at head coaching in the NHL, where the Tampa Bay Lightning also rode his “1-3-1” defensive scheme all the way to the Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11 before steeply declining the following 2 seasons. Not to blame the worst stretch in Sens franchise history on Boucher’s flawed tactics, but it does beg the question:
How big of an impact can a coach have on both winning and losing?
Looking at DJ Smith’s first 2 seasons behind the Sens bench, albeit 2 abbreviated campaigns, it’s gone pretty much according to plan. Last season, they were supposed to be basement dwellers, and they certainly were that. This season, however, they were still expected to be in tough, but with prospects like Erik Brannstrom, Josh Norris, Filip Gustavsson, and even Vitaly Abromov starting to scratch the NHL’s surface (all of whom they accumulated in the aforementioned roster overhaul), along with newly acquired and signed goalie Matt Murray, the Sens were expected to put forth a more watchable product in 2020-21 and perhaps surprise some teams. Unfortunately, the Sens kicked off the season with a disastrous 2-13-1 stretch, essentially ending any hopes of a competitive season. This horrid start was not totally unexpected, given some players, including goaltender Matt Murray, had just gone through the longest stretch without hockey in their entire lives.
Still, they showed promise out of the gate, going 1-1-1 in their first 3 games, including a 5-3 win over the North Division favourite Maple Leafs in the season’s opener. Given that, it’s a little puzzling as to how exactly the team we saw in the first 3 games could then go on to lose 12 of their next 13 games and carry a negative 30 goal differential over that span. Shaky goaltending and porous defensive coverage was undeniable, but that’s been discussed and acknowledged continuously by the media, the players as well as head coach DJ Smith. I just wonder, when the season’s done, will DJ reflect on the team’s start and detect weak spots in his approach?
It’s clear from the last 37 games, where the Sens have gone 19-14-4 over that span, that the current roster is capable of competing despite their inexperience. This stark turnaround first a foremost started in net, with unsung heroes like Joey Daccord, who replaced an injured Matt Murray in goal and got the ball rolling in what’s been an impressive; prolonged stretch of goaltending by committee. A welcomed surprise, but that’s not exactly how a well run team operates. Relying on guys to just figure things out or hoping someone new steps in and makes an impact is not how you achieve any form of consistency within an organization.
Take the Nashville Predators’ 2020-21 campaign for example, who also started off the season slow, going 6-10 in their first 16 games. Not a good start, but they were able to stay in the fight by gritting out games and squeaking out a couple wins in overtime. Since, they’ve gone 23-13-2 and currently hold the 4th and final playoff spot in the Central. I brought this up to compare because they are led by head Coach John Hynes, a 46 year old that played a little bit when he was younger and is taking his 2nd crack at head coaching in the NHL. His first stint with the Devils started off similarly to DJ Smith’s first couple seasons with Ottawa. Working with a rebuilding roster, the Devils would miss the playoffs his first couple seasons behind the bench before he coached New Jersey to the playoffs in 2018, the team’s first playoff appearance since 2011. However, Hynes was fired on December 3rd, 2019, when the team got off to a slow start and quickly fell out of contention. Not unlike DJ Smith, the Devils found some brief success under Hynes’s tutelage. Overall though, he wasn’t able to bring the type of sustained success management looks for.
Under Smith, the Sens certainly appear to be on a stark incline, but he has to prove if he’s advanced enough as a leader to keep the train on the tracks from start to finish. The fact of the matter is, if DJ Smith doesn’t at least lead the Sens to a 1st round playoff appearance next year, much like Hynes did with the Devils in his 3rd season, Smith likely won’t be granted the same privilege of getting canned midway through his 4th lap.
It does seem as though DJ Smith was the right man to get Ottawa to this point at least, as I’d be remiss to not attribute at least some of the encouraging player development to his structure and approach. Seeing guys like Formenton and Pinto step in and immediately contribute at the NHL level speaks volumes in terms of Smith's inviting schemes. On top of that, watching the games, it’s clear there is a strong bond being formed within this group. Coaches can no doubt have a big impact on the vibes within a locker room, be it negative or positive. From the looks of it, Smith seems to have a nice balance of hard ass and players coach working in his favor. He certainly hasn’t been shy to add or subtract minutes with certain players, helping create a competitive atmosphere. Given that, it’s all the more impressive how positive the vibes appear to be within the team.
Also, he’s shown a lack of stubbornness that is necessary in the modern day. Having a natural preference for big, burly defenders, Dorion seems to be going more in the direction of pace and space with the addition of Mete and subtraction of Gudbranson and Coburn. Since these deadline moves, Smith has given smaller defenders in Mete and Brannstrom consistent playing time and they've both thoroughly impressed. Recognizing a blind spot in your mindset and adjusting accordingly is what makes both a good coach and a good person. I’m sure the Sens want their head coach to exhibit both of those qualities, so seeing that from Smith in his first try at head coaching in the NHL is a very encouraging thing.
With all those attractive qualities in mind, I’d be surprised if Smith doesn’t enjoy a good amount of success as a head coach in the NHL someday. The question now becomes if he’s far enough along in his growth to achieve that success during his first stint here in Ottawa. If the Sens stumble out the gates again next season, we could get an answer to that question rather swiftly.
By Cam Clement | Sens Nation Hockey