D.J. Smith’s Evolution Is Key to Senators’ Future Success

The Ottawa Senators’ success is now in the hands of newly-appointed head coach D.J. Smith. They may be a small market team, but the Senators are under the microscope when it comes to coverage. Between the poor performances and owner Eugene Melnyk’s antics, the organization has been well documented over the past several years. This season, the team is likely headed toward another poor performance. Only one team is projected to be worse in 2018-19, according to Sean Tierney’s model which uses data from Evolving Wild.

If the Senators are to find any success that counters this projection, they’re going to need Smith to continue his development as a hockey coach. He’s going to need to use every tool at his disposal and probably get creative. Prior to his recent comments about the value of using analytics as a tool for success, Smith had appeared to have joked about the use of non-standard metrics. Here are two quotes, in chronological order, that highlight Smith’s growth in the game when it comes to being open to additional coaching tools.

“And I thought – it’s such a tool. Sometimes the eye test wins, when it’s not always the case. What I’ve found with the analytics, more at my disposal in the NHL, maybe what I see is not always 100 percent, it’s going to make you double and triple check. It’s a tool that must be used and there are different ways to use it.”

The first quote, as Johnston tweets, is Smith commenting to Mike Babcock, in a seemingly sarcastic way, about Corsi during a game against the Nashville Predators in March 2018. The second quote is from an article on Sportsnet, published in Aug. 2019 and features Smith praising the use of analytics. The two comments are in completely opposite directions of each other. In the Sportsnet article, Smith also talks about how maybe his eyes aren’t right all the time, which speaks to some degree of prior reliance.

There were 512 days between these two quotes and there appears to be a lot of growth by Smith simply from the tone. He’s gone from making sarcastic comments about analytics to admitting fault in the eye-test. The Senators have been a statistical nightmare for the last four seasons, ranked in the bottom third of the league in possession each year. They needed a coach who was willing to embrace the value of analytics as a tool to be used to better the team. It was pretty clear, simply from the standings, that the Senators were either ignoring what the numbers were saying, or they were applying their information incorrectly on the ice.

The Formula Has Changed

You can’t simply bang and grind your way to a Stanley Cup anymore. You need to carry and control the puck with a roster of skilled players. With talented young players like Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, as well as prospects Logan Brown and Erik Brannstrom, the Senators need to adapt to today’s game. In the modern NHL, you need top-six talent in the forward group and effective defenders in the top-four. Possession woes are created when players end up higher in the lineup than they should be – or starting more in the defensive zone than their skill level permits. Overall, the modern NHL has a higher skill level than previous eras, which means it’s much easier to have coaching mistakes exploited.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Based on early predictions, there’s a good chance that they win one of the three lottery picks for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and with that comes another extremely gifted hockey player. Having this much young talent is the framework for a bright 10-plus years – providing they put more skilled talent and good deployment into the mix. You don’t even need to leave the division to find examples of teams that build a sustainable future with their young talent while focusing on controlling the puck (Tampa Bay Lightning).

Smith undoubtedly picked up a lot of information while he was a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with general manager Kyle Dubas considered one of the leaders in the league for analytics, though it wasn’t until recently (the Sportsnet Q&A) that he seemingly began to take it all seriously. The Senators need Smith all-in when it comes to possession and altering the way they currently play. This isn’t to say that the eye test should be ignored, just approached with caution. The biggest issue here would be player usage, something the Maple Leafs coaching staff struggled with at times.

Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Maple Leafs
New Senators Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For example: if he chooses to play Nikita Zaitsev as a top-pairing defender with, say, Chabot after getting a sample of games that shows it doesn’t work. It’s like sitting at a Blackjack table and everyone is playing the odds, the house is losing and you really want to hit that 12 when the dealer is showing six. You know what’s right and wrong, and there’s a chance it works out, but if you choose wrong, the whole table could suffer to varying degrees. When coaches try to force pairings that don’t work, the team, generally, has trouble finding success. There are limited options for the Senators as to who will be paired with Chabot right now, so it’s likely going to be whoever causes the least amount of damage to the pairing.

Ron Hainsey was also brought in from the Maple Leafs where he was used consistently with Morgan Rielly. Chabot is good enough to mask Hainsey’s deficiencies, much like Rielly. That doesn’t make it the best decision. Smith, I assume, would have been consulted on both ex-Maple Leaf defenders prior to the Senators bringing in both players. Herein lies the concern. If you are truly going to value a statistical approach to assist in getting better, spending $8 million on Zaitsev and Hainsey is a strange way of showing it. Both defenders had their struggles with increased responsibility in Toronto, and it’s up to Smith to place them in the right lineup position for the Senators. This will have to include referencing what the numbers say.

Another part of accepting the truth in Smith’s statements from the Sportsnet quote is acknowledging that a Polak-type player (referenced in the Chris Johnston tweet above) is of no use to him now. This matters because it leads us to Mark Borowiecki. Hitting is placed on a higher pedestal than it should be. It serves a purpose in the right situation, but it’s not necessarily an important reason to value a player. Borowiecki has been the one constant in the Senators locker room since 2014-15, but his value is comparable to Polak in what he brings to the team. If he’s over-used, the Senators will feel the negative impact.

D.J. Smith, Ottawa Senators head coach
D.J. Smith, Ottawa Senators head coach (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Smith will get a chance to back up his recent comments when the season begins and he takes his position behind the bench. The Senators will be an interesting team to watch this season, despite the low expectations, not only because of players like Chabot and Tkachuk but because we’re going to see what kind of coach D.J. Smith has become after four seasons with Mike Babcock. The Senators, more than anything else this season, need Smith to continue to evolve as an NHL coach so they can give themselves the best chance to succeed when more additions are made to the roster.