D.J. Smith, 42, is poised to step behind the bench as an NHL head coach for the first time in his career. Named the 14th head coach of the Ottawa Senators on May 23, Smith and his larger-than-life personality are about to tackle one of the biggest challenges in hockey: turning around the last-place Senators, a team that lost star players Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene last year, but is rich in prospects at the minor league level.
A three-time Memorial Cup champion as an OHL assistant and head coach, Smith spent the past four seasons in Toronto as an assistant to Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. This week, Smith sat down for a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet’s Wayne Scanlan at a diner in the ByWard Market.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sportsnet: Have you settled in yet? I think you have had all of three days here now after a summer back home in Windsor.
Smith: I was here quite a bit during the summer, so I got to know a bit about the area. Moved in Saturday, got most of the house sorted out, just starting to get into a normal routine – up in the morning, and out to the rink. Hockey is hockey. Once the staff gets in, you get used to your regular day and it just kind of flows.
SN: And your older son, Colton, will be playing for the CCHL Kanata Lasers?
Smith: Yes, with Chris Phillips, Sean Donovan (as coaches). It’s three minutes from our house. It’s great. I haven’t had an opportunity to live with him in six years now, other than just the summers, so it’s great to have him there every day.
SN: Is Colton as passionate about hockey as you?
Smith: In a different way. Today it’s all about the internet and stick-handling and tricks, where I was so excited to turn on CBC when there were only six channels, and catch the hockey playoffs with the Winnipeg Jets and towels flying around. That was a thrill for me as a true Canadian kid… it’s a different era.
SN: I would guess the next order of business is the rookie tournament in Belleville (Sept. 6-9). How involved will you be?
Smith: The minor league coaches run that and deal with it on a daily basis, but I will be there watching.
SN: As a head coach, what will you be looking for?
Smith: Some of the guys there are going to play games for us, for sure. Maybe make the team. I’m just watching them to see how they are against their peers, kids their own age, where they are at with their development. It’s a big difference, when you get in with the NHL players, how big and strong they are. You see how a guy is against his own age group, see what he can do, and then hope that in time he can do that at the NHL level.
SN: What’s job No. 1 when main camp begins?
Smith: Just to instill the mentality that we won’t be out-worked. That we’re going to play hard. We’re just not going to be easy to play against. We’re not going to win every game, but it can’t be easy to come here and get two points. When you play Ottawa, people need to know we’re coming to play.
SN: You’re known as a goal-setter, a man who makes lists with personal targets. Have you set goals for the 2019-20 Senators?
Smith: You know what, I have, quietly, in my own mind. But I don’t want to say them out loud. I also want to see what we look on the ice, through the exhibition season, and then be realistic with what the approach is.
One of the goals I can say out loud is – to change the mentality, and change the culture. That’s going to happen. The mentality is the belief that we are one of these teams to be reckoned with in the future. It takes time to earn that confidence. And we’re going to work every day to earn a little bit more confidence. Every game. Every year. So we can rebuild this thing into a team that’s not good for – not just one year, and then you miss the next year – but for a seven-year run. My job is to get that turned around and these young kids are a big part of it.
SN: Is a 2020 playoff berth a reasonable goal for this rebuilding team?
Smith: If you ask anyone in the hockey world, they would say you’re crazy. Everywhere I look, we’re pegged for dead last. And that’s fine with me. I’m not going to bring that word up with our players. I’m just going to see how we play. We don’t have the older superstars of the world right now, but we have some young players who are going to be that in the future, so I’ve got to make sure I develop them properly, give them all the support I can, to be those players. If we can be really competitive and stay in the hunt that would be great, but ultimately the goal’s got to be to have this thing rolling so we’re good every year.
SN: You feel you might catch a few teams off guard?
Smith: If you work hard, you’re prepared, your team is detailed and you stay within yourself, and know who you really are, you can catch a lot of teams (off guard). There’s 82 games. You are going to catch teams flat. As one of the bottom seeds, you’re going to see a lot of backup goalies – you’re going to win some of those games. But what you want to do is play kind of the same way every night, so we know what to expect. And hopefully, those add up over time. But that’s a lot of work ahead of us, it’s easy to say, for a team that’s finished 30th and 31st in back-to-back years. There’s work to do but I feel we’re going to get this done.
SN: In interviews, you’ve tossed around words like “Corsi” and “tracking” in a way we haven’t heard from Ottawa coaches. How do analytics figure into your coaching philosophies and player assessments?
Smith: You know, I would have said, ‘very little’ when I was in Oshawa in junior. I was big on chances for and chances against. I would keep a running tally. After 10, 15 games the same guys tend to be plus, plus. And it brings me back to a guy, Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay Lightning), he was undrafted in the OHL, came to our camp as a free agent. And I’m not playing him very much, he’s on the fourth line, and after about six games, he’s always in the plus chances. So, he moves up a line and he’s more plus. And some guys are minus. 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 per cent, 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.
SN: You’ve also said that veteran players need more skating than they need rest, a dramatic shift from a coach here whose mantra was “rest is a weapon.”
Smith: I would have thought that same mentality five years ago, ‘oh, the guy needs a day off.’ And then, talking to Mike Babcock, he would go back to guys he had in Anaheim like Adam Oates, (Sergei) Federov, guys like this, and the more they skated, the more they could play at the level they used to play at. I think over time he had learned that resting these older guys actually had them not skate as well. Rest for young guys is more substantial, because they get tired. But pros, big guys, have to keep moving. A body in motion stays in motion, as they say.
I asked Ron Hainsey, who has played over 1,000 games, and he said he has to skate every day or ride the bike. For these guys in their mid to late 30s, days off actually hurt them. Of course, they take their one day a week, but you don’t take every practice off because you’re 35. You don’t move in a practice, you don’t move in a game.
SN: Bringing in veteran ex-Leafs you know well from your time in Toronto, namely Nikita Zaitsev, Hainsey, Tyler Ennis and Connor Brown provide needed experience for a club that lost stars like Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson and Matt Duchene. But is it going to be challenging to give some of your young forwards and defence enough playing time?
Smith: No, it’s going to be a conscious effort by me. You have to earn it, though. Minutes cannot be given to young players, because that’s not development. Development is beating somebody out on a nightly basis. Now, I have to put the players in a position to succeed. I can’t put a goal scorer on the fourth line with a couple of guys who never score, and then say to the guy, “I can’t believe you’re not scoring.”
So, I think there is a skill to developing players and giving them minutes, but ultimately they have to earn it. Personal confidence when you earn something means a lot more.
Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot keeps an eye on the play during a game against San Jose Sharks on Dec. 1 2018 in Ottawa. (Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SN: On defence, Zaitsev, Thomas Chabot, Dylan DeMelo and Hainsey would appear to be locks. After that, you have the grit and experience of Mark Borowiecki and lots of young talent pushing for time – Christian Jaros, Christian Wolanin, rookie Erik Brannstrom and Max Lajoie. How do you see that playing out?
Smith: I think it will sort itself out because I haven’t seen a lot of these guys play. The big thing for me is – we’ve been told how good Brannstrom is. But is he ready at the start of the year, or ready at Christmas?
I really like what I see with some of the guys who played last year. I’ve certainly seen Wolanin play live. They all have their own issues as young defencemen, but a Jaros, and even (Andreas) Englund down in the minors, there’s an influx of players. Who stays? They’re going to earn it for themselves in training camp and exhibition games. And if you don’t start the year here, it doesn’t mean you won’t finish it here and be one of our guys. The six guys who start Game One, usually are not the same six at the end, playing important minutes. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ve found who we think are the best seven defencemen.
SN: Similarly, upfront you have 10 forwards, established NHL veterans. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for prospects like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton, Max Veronneau and Josh Norris, among others. Will most of them have to shine in AHL Belleville before getting their NHL opportunity?
Smith: I would say that’s fair, that they have to do that. A few guys may get a longer look at camp. But to say you can come out of junior hockey or college and jump right into the NHL, you really have to be a special player, especially at centre or defence. What I’ve seen is, make sure it’s their time, and when they’re ready, they don’t have to get sent back down.
SN: And you’re probably not going to name a captain this year?
Smith: No, we’re not. The captain will emerge in time. I think the biggest thing is that we will allow the older guys to mentor these younger guys and blunt the blow until we turn the corner here. After a tough night, I don’t want the young guys having to answer all the questions. The veterans and myself are going to answer to it.
SN: You have an experienced coaching staff with Jack Capuano, Davis Payne, Bob Jones, Pierre Groulx (goalies) and Mike King (video). As a head coach, would you describe yourself as more of a delegator or benevolent dictator?
Smith: Delegator, for sure. But at times, you have to be, not a dictator, but stern enough that they know what you want. You can’t be grey, people need direction. So, I have to allow them to do their job but they also have to be told within certain parameters what I expect. People want feedback on a daily basis. Working under Mike, he is certainly tough on his staff, but he holds you accountable and I think that’s a good thing. People will be accountable here, including me.
SN: Hockey players and coaches are scattered on summer golf courses but I’m guessing you don’t see as many in the Crossfit gym. Is Crossfit training a good way for a coach to get his “ya-ya’s” out as the Rolling Stones called it?
Smith: Absolutely. For me, it’s someone who tells you what to do for one hour a day. It’s competitive, so you get to see the best. You get an opportunity once a day to compete against other people. I couldn’t believe when my wife (Christie Bezaire) wanted me to do it. I was used to just going to the gym, lift, and do some cardio, or whatever.
It’s humbling when you find out how good some of these other people are. I’m in my 40s and you see some 21-year-old kid that’s a machine in there, and you’re the old guy saying, ‘ah, when I was 23 I would’ve…’ and it’s hard to believe I’m that person now. But it is good to watch how good these people are and push yourself to beat them some days.
SN: What kind of events are you competing in?
Smith: It changes every day. It might just be a ten-minute workout of, for example in layman’s terms, 50 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and 50 jumping jacks. All for three rounds, in time. So, some animal will do it in a minute and 12 seconds, when it’s taking me seven minutes. There’s running, weight lifting. Crossfit is trying to change more and more, where they’re doing different activities. It’s challenging. It’s a way to turn your brain off for one hour a day. I’m going to find a gym near the rink.
SN: Does Dallas Eakins have anything to worry about? Are you going to challenge him to a race in the Leadville 100?
Smith: I see him biking an awful lot. I’m not a biker, so I’d say he’s got me. BUT, the bench press, the squats, I think I’ve got him.
SN: What else does a high-energy individual like you do to relax?
Smith: The best part will be being able to watch my 15-year-old son play hockey. I haven’t been able to watch him throughout the season. But what I have learned is, you have to have activities to get your mind off work. You can’t go 24/7 thinking about your job. You won’t do it at your best ability. Whether it’s Crossfit, or watching my son, playing with my three-year-old son (Brock) at home, these are all good distractions that will help me be a better coach.