Leading into the hiring of new Ottawa Senators coach DJ Smith, it was believed to be a pivotal hire for the current management group led by general manager Pierre Dorion. Since the days of Jacques Martin in the early 2000s, it seems that the turnstile behind the team bench has never stopped. Since 2005-06, the team has had eight head coaches, hardly a trend to be proud of.
With fans and media waiting on the edge of their seats for a marquee name to mentor the young roster and remedy the defensive woes of the past few seasons, Dorion hired Smith, the defense coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs since 2015-16. Smith, fresh off a Memorial Cup as head coach of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, was hired by the Maple Leafs to join newly-appointed head coach Mike Babcock. Known for his schemes and knowledge on defense, his ability to work with younger talent and managing the pressures of a bubbling hockey market, Smith fit the mold for the Senators.
Once Smith was hired, the dominos began to fall and the shift to player personnel was at the forefront for the team. After the draft, the team dealt away local product Cody Ceci, along with Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuck and a 2020 third-rounder to the Maple Leafs for Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown and Michael Carcone. In free agency, they hit redial and targeted two more Maple Leafs, signing veteran defender Ron Hainsey and depth forward Tyler Ennis. While some feel either confused, frustrated or both from the moves, these seemingly underwhelming transactions could be the keys to success for Smith and could have a significant impact on the team in a number of ways.
Early Season Success
When the season finally kicks off in October, teams often go through growing pains to find roles for new players who are getting to know new systems. If teams have a new head coach, it can be a steep learning curve and the beginning of the season can be rocky at best. While other teams will be going through growing pains, Smith enters as head coach already knowing four players very well, and so the buy-in to coaching philosophies should be a much smoother transition.
Besides Ennis, who was only in Toronto this past season, Smith has coached Brown for four seasons, Zaitsev for three and Hainsey for two. It is not to say that there aren’t other new faces on the team as well, but given that the Senators are projected to be hard up for wins this season, some familiarity and understanding between the coach and players could lead to a quick start and some early season success.
Hainsey to Support Chabot
Thomas Chabot exploded in 2018-19 with 55 points in 70 game. With a 30-point improvement from the season previous, he quickly turned heads and showed that he could live up to his offensive billing as an all-star defender. While the team wants to hone their defensive game, the balance was to make sure that Chabot could continue to thrive and lead the offense from the back end.
Enter Hainsey. Having played with Morgan Rielly, he knows a thing or two about how to pair with and offset an offensive-minded partner. While Hainsey rode shotgun to Rielly and benefited by finishing with plus-30 rating, don’t be too quick to dismiss his defensive awareness and acceptance of his role as the fallback option. Rielly was in the conversation late in the season for the Norris Trophy as he scored 72 points and had a career year. Hainsey’s defensive responsibility allowed Rielly to freewheel and ignite the Maple Leafs offense on countless rushes. Similarly, Rielly’s knack for pinching and darting into open lanes was a great advantage for the Maple Leafs, and he could do so knowing that Hainsey was on call for backup.
Chabot plays a comparable style to Rielly. Both are exceptional skaters and puck carriers and can be very opportunistic. With Hainsey by his side, Chabot can continue to flourish offensively and has the chance to learn a great deal about his own defensive game from the 38-year-old veteran. The Senators are sure to improve on the defensive end, and with Hainsey insulating Chabot, the latter’s development should continue to steadily improve.
A Reinvigorated Zaitsev
Since he began his time in the NHL, Zaitsev and Smith have worked alongside one another trying to shore up the back end in Toronto. In his rookie season of 2016-17, Zaitsev posted a respectable 36 points despite a minus-22. Over the past two seasons his plus/minus has improved to plus-eight and plus-two, respectively, but what is more encouraging is that his Corsi numbers at even strength have hovered just below the 50% mark (45% is considered below average). After Zaitsev requested a trade from the Maple Leafs in late May 2019, rumours began to link the Senators as a potential suitor.
While his play had been questioned in his latter days as a Maple Leaf, the all-around defender appeared to be a fit with the new direction of the Senators. There is seemingly the potential that if he plays for a defensively-focused team and gets a fresh start, it could do wonders for his game. With his NHL experience and being highly coveted right shot, Zaitsev could be looking at a potential top-four pairing.
Likely candidates behind Chabot on the left side are two of the Senators’ premier defensive prospects in Erik Brannstrom and Christian Wolanin. Given Smith’s relationship with Zaitsev, one has to think that trust and patience are already in place, which should give Zaitsev the confidence to go about his business and thrive. It could all be a nice fit and the answer to a new and improved Zaitsev.
With the winds of change finally settled in Canada’s capital, the work has already begun to start the next phase of the organization. With Smith at the helm preaching his defensive prowess and familiar faces in the fold already following him, the Senators could be a pleasant surprise early on this upcoming season.