D.J. Smith’s Future as Senators’ Coach Depends on Second-Half Results

D.J. Smith’s days as the Ottawa Senators head coach could be numbered if the team doesn’t see a big improvement in the back end of the season. Sure, with two big wins this week against the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, many fans will say the team is on the path to redemption and that should answer calls from the peanut gallery for his head.

Related: 3 Takeaways From the Senators’ Convincing Win Over the Flames – 1/13/22

Even so, on the season as a whole, the team has seen little improvement under Smith. After 31 games they have posted a . 387 points percentage. Only the lowly Montreal Canadiens (.264), the Arizona Coyotes (.278), and the Seattle Kraken (.324) have registered worse.

The Senators are relatively healthy now and they have an opportunity to climb in the standings with the considerable number of games they have in hand. Yet if Smith’s hold on his job over the next 18 months is to be secure, that climb needs to start now.

How Much is D.J. Smith to Blame for the Senators’ Struggles?

Smith’s defenders point out that he can’t be blamed for the Senators’ dismal performance this year arguing the team endured outbreaks of COVID in November and December that together forced the league to postpone 14 of the team’s games. Ten of their last 11 must be rescheduled. By the time Ottawa beat the Flames on Jan. 12, they had played just one game in the previous 26 days and that was a 6-0 New Year’s Day pummeling at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (five players were in COVID protocol for that one) 

Smith backers point out that it would be hard for any team to find its stride under those circumstances. They’re right.

D.J. Smith Ottawa Senators-D.J. Smith's Future as Senators' Coach Depends on Second-Half Results
D.J. Smith, head coach of the Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Adding to Ottawa’s struggles is the fact that games continue to be postponed, the latest being a scheduled matchup against the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 10. Smith complained that “Now that we’re healthy, we’re missing all these games against teams that are losing guys (to COVID). For us it’s frustrating. These are young guys in here that want to play hockey.” (from, “GARRIOCH: Senators face another lengthy layoff as Edmonton game postponed”, Ottawa Sun, 09/01/2022)

What’s more, say Smith’s defenders, injuries have also hurt the team this season with Shane Pinto and Colin White sidelined for months. Now, Connor Brown is week-to-week with a broken jaw. A weak D-Corps was further depleted by injuries to Nikita Zaitsev and Josh Brown.

Those in Smith’s corner point out that he can only work with what Senators general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion gives him. They complain that other than a few depth additions like Victor Mete and Michael Del Zotto, the GM added very little to the team in the off-season. What the team iced in October was essentially the same team that Senators’ fans saw last season.

Dorion failed to deliver on acquiring another top centre and worse still, nothing was done when Pinto and White were sidelined. He put Evgenii Dadonov on a bus out of town but didn’t replace him with a top-four D-man as was widely expected. That didn’t help a blue line that can only be described as a dumpster fire this year.

Shane Pinto Ottawa Senators Draft-D.J. Smith's Future as Senators' Coach Depends on Second-Half Results
Shane Pinto, Ottawa Senators, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Some fans have pointed out that while Smith may not be the perfect coach, the Senators could do a lot worse than having him behind the bench, citing the adage, “better the devil you know.”

D.J. Smith’s Complete Record Will Be His Measure

Nobody, not even those fans calling for a new bench boss in Bytown would decide Smith’s future based on the team’s performance over the last two months. They would instead make the case by turning to his overall coaching record since coming to the nation’s capital. 

The Senators haven’t made the playoffs since the 2016-17 season – almost five long, humiliating seasons ago. If the team fails to make the post-season again this year, as seems almost certain, Smith will have been the head coach in three of them. 

He owns a disappointing record of 58-80-19 in Ottawa. Sure, he has been behind the bench for a rebuild, but even so, this season has been a disaster with the team registering a record of 11-18-2 so far. Yes, they struggled with COVID and injuries, but even before the virus hit, they should have been better than they were.

After all, this season was the one in which Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk promised his team would be a contender for Lord Stanley’s chalice, saying in a November 2020 interview, “I think our big years are coming in the next three years. I think this coming year, (2020-21) we will be competitive.” They weren’t and still aren’t – at least not yet.

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk-D.J. Smith's Future as Senators' Coach Depends on Second-Half Results
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Not only that, but at the start of this season, Dorion proclaimed that “The rebuild is done. Now we’re stepping into another zone.” The Senators then went on to establish a 4-10-1 record up to Nov. 16 when their first game was postponed due to COVID. 

Some say Smith is getting poor results from a mix of mediocre talent and young players needing development. Even so, the team looked promising in the closing stretch of last season winning nine of their final 12 games. It was not unreasonable for fans to think they would build on that this season and even steal a wild card spot in the playoffs. Instead, that same group of players took a nose dive out of the gates, raising questions as to how well they are coached.

Rating D.J. Smith’s Coaching

Any coach behind an NHL bench is a good one. Still, they need Lady Luck and she has been a cruel mistress to Smith this season. 

Is his job on the line? Of course it is. This is the NHL and most who coach in it are just a losing streak or two away from being on the hot seat. The key question about Smith is how much of his team’s disappointing results this year does he own as opposed to his players. 

When it comes to bringing out the best in young players, pundits ask whether Smith is the right choice. Erik Brannstrom has struggled to break into the lineup for several years and his hold on a spot on the third pairing is tenuous. There were high hopes placed on Logan Brown but he was shipped out of town after playing 23 games under Smith with any hope of him launching in Ottawa extinguished. Filip Chlapik was placed on waivers last season after playing 31 games under Smith.

On the other hand, more young players have thrived under Smith than have floundered. Nick Paul and Alex Formenton are now solid top-six players and before he was injured, Pinto arguably rivaled Josh Norris as the Senators’ top centre. Tim Stutzle’s defensive game has improved considerably while Artyom Zub has become a solid top-four on the blue line. 

Josh Norris Ottawa Senators-D.J. Smith's Future as Senators' Coach Depends on Second-Half Results
Josh Norris, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

How much of this is coaching and how much should be attributed to the players is up for debate. Even so, if Smith’s critics want to slam him for young players who failed to launch in Ottawa, then he deserves credit for those who have. 

Related: Senators’ Formenton Has Cemented His Spot in the Top-Six

Goaltending is often cited as one of the reasons that the Senators have struggled this year with the team’s number one twine minder, Matt Murray, being sent to the Belleville Senators in the American Hockey League (AHL) last month to straighten himself out. Many commentators ask what that says about a team’s coaching when their starting goaltender is sent down to the minors.

Spotty goaltending has worsened the D-Corps’ struggles this season. The Senators’ young defensemen must at times lack confidence in the team’s crease-keeping, and that is sure to affect the way they play.

The Ottawa Senators Lack Effective Systems

Up to now, it would be hard to argue that the Senators have well-developed systems. The team is plagued by missed assignments, turnovers in the defensive zone, and dopey passes that get intercepted coming through the neutral zone. They give up a lot of odd-man rushes and their play often looks sloppy.

When under pressure, they have difficulty breaking out of their own zone and default to clearing pucks up the boards rather than hitting their forwards with break-out passes on set plays. They often default to a dump and chase game but have trouble gaining possession of the puck in the O-Zone when they do. Dangerous no-look, east-west passes are common when they are under pressure.

Outside of the top line of Brady Tkachuk, Norris, and Drake Batherson, the forward lines aren’t generating many points. The Senators depend on their top line for four in every 10 goals they score (43.9%) and over a third of their total points (34.9%). Smith needs to get more from his other three lines. While he deserves credit for his top line developing into one that can handle more ice time this year, many claim that the team’s lack of secondary scoring is a coaching problem.

D.J. Smith’s Future in Ottawa

Head coaches don’t last long in the NHL – just over three seasons is their average life span. (from, “Will All NHL Coaches Have Job Security in 2020-21?”, The Hockey News, 12/1/2021) Since Smith took over in Ottawa, 20 other teams in the league have made coaching changes. (from, “WARREN’s Piece – Smith among longest-serving NHL coaches, Covid-19 here, there, everywhere” Ottawa Sun, 18/12/2021) So far this season, four head coaches in the league have been replaced.

Smith signed a contract extension last summer that has him in Ottawa through the 2023-24 season. It’s hard to fathom him being terminated at least until the holes in the Senators roster are filled, particularly at the blue line. It’s likely he has another year behind the bench. Still, if the Senators fail to live up to lofty expectations in the latter part of this season he will be on tenterhooks come summer.

At this point, Smith needs to reset his team after a disappointing first half of the season, rebuild their confidence and create some structure on the blue line. 

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