Senators coach D.J. Smith: It’s time for team to take ‘next step’

During a Zoom conference, Ottawa Senators head coach DJ Smith takes us through his typical day at home during this NHL pause, says he's just recently been getting into team dynamics, and how they need to improve going forward.

CrossFit training in the driveway is a thing at D.J. Smith’s home.

Hockey people aren’t so different from anyone isolating with loved ones during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Smith, the Senators head coach, is a great example of a father, husband and hockey man trying to juggle a bit of work, some fitness, parenting and general boredom as he isolates at home in Windsor, Ont., with wife, Christie, and children Colton, 16, and Brock, 3.

On a video conference call Wednesday, Smith said a typical day for him starts around 6 a.m., the waking hour of the couple’s three-year-old son.

From there, the new daily routine for Smith goes something like this: Either he or Christie will get up with Brock, see that he is fed and kept entertained. And by later in the morning, the family does CrossFit workouts in the driveway or garage, mostly programs Christie has found online, since CrossFit gyms, like nearly everything else, are closed.

“She tells me (the routines) and I just kind of do them,” Smith says.

While the couple misses their restaurant outings, Smith says he is probably in better shape without his favourite dining haunts, whether in Ottawa or on the road. Nearly all their food is home-cooked now.

“She keeps me in check,” Smith says.

Most afternoons, Smith will take little Brock out for a car ride for a change of scenery. Often the coach will make a call to Senators general manager Pierre Dorion just to check on things. Nights are spent trying to find new programming on Netflix. Join the club, coach.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

‘The fear hadn’t set in’

Of all the NHL teams that shut down operations one month ago, none had quite the experience of Smith and the Senators. The Senators and Los Angeles Kings played the final game before the stoppage, on March 11 at the Staples Center.

The Senators had played in Anaheim the night before and in San Jose the previous Saturday, March 7. As the Bay Area was at the time the epicentre of the outbreak in the United States, Smith said it was somewhat eerie walking around San Jose, where the usually bustling downtown sidewalk streets were quiet. But otherwise, there were no outward signs of a pending pandemic.

“The fear hadn’t set in,” Smith said. “San Jose was a little bit lighter but when we were in Anaheim everything was normal. Anaheim and LA were living life as normal. There was the odd mask you could see before we left, but the world as we know it today wasn’t evident.”

And yet, because of modern communications, players knew what was coming. From their phones they had heard the NBA was postponing its season due to a player testing positive. Some wondered if that March 11 game versus the Kings would even happen.

“It certainly was a different atmosphere than any other game I’ve been a part of,” Smith said. “We just waited for direction from the league. “Once the NBA cancelled their games, we knew we wouldn’t be far behind.”

Since returning to Ottawa, seven people on the Senators charter flight have tested positive for the coronavirus, initially two players and broadcaster Gord Wilson; then three more players and one staff member. Smith said all are doing well and are on the “other side” of the virus now.

“I’m glad our organization is doing well but it certainly was a scary time,” Smith said.

After isolating in Ottawa for more than two weeks, Smith and his family went home to Windsor, where there have been major concerns as well. Smith said that seven local seniors’ homes have been hit with COVID cases.

“That’s the big thing here right now,” Smith said. “If your mother or father, grandmother or grandfather was in there you’d realize just how real it is. It has hit home here in Windsor pretty good.”

Ready if called upon

Smith has no idea if the NHL will resume the regular season, skip ahead to a playoff schedule, or cancel everything, but if there are any games for his non-playoff group to play, he doesn’t think the Senators would need a long training camp.

“I think we’re at an advantage there, we’re such a young team,” Smith said. “Young guys can get going quickly.”

Likewise, regarding injury concerns of a sudden restart to hockey, Smith feels that more veteran teams trying to get into playoff shape in a hurry will find that a challenge.

Time for Ottawa’s ‘next step’

Senators coaches were in contact with each other by phone on a daily basis up until last week. As for watching team video, Smith says he and his staff watch their own team to the point of “exhaustion.”

“We know our team inside and out,” Smith says. “What’s more important to me now is watching what other teams are doing. And what can we steal from what the best teams in the league are doing.”

In particular, Smith wants to see his team get better on special teams. The power play started horribly, improved and then tailed off. The penalty kill had been pretty good but also faded at the end.

Smith’s overriding message to his players, especially the young core players like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot and Colin White, is a change in mindset from a rebuilding team to a contender.

“Whether we play this year or next, our mentality has to change,” Smith says. “It’s time for us to take a step. How big a step that is, we’re going to find out. But we certainly need to take a step mentally, with the Tkachuks, Chabot and Whites etc.

“You watch the best teams, the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals, for example, when they come to the arena they expect to win every night. I think every team wants to win every night, there’s a difference between wanting to and knowing that you can win every night.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Proudest moment of the season

Asked if there was any one game of which he was most proud, Smith pointed to a string of home games the Senators played in November. From Oct. 23 through Nov. 27 the Senators were 7-1 on home ice and counted wins against teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.

“That has to be the Ottawa Senators going forward,” Smith said. “You come in and we expect to beat you in our home building. We were hard to play against. We were tough. We fought. We had energy. We scored goals. We blocked shots. All the things we had to do.”

For a brief moment, one month of the season, the Senators were playing winning hockey, cheering for one another and pushing each other.

“We were in the middle of the pack, and you could see how much energy winning brings to the room,” Smith said. What followed were a string of injuries on the blue line and the Senators fell back in the standings.

But it was a glimpse into what could be when Ottawa’s roster improves.

Smith added that his greatest source of pride was his team’s commitment to working hard, in games and practices.

Hogberg came a long way

Asked to name an individual who progressed the most in 2019-20, Smith cited goaltender Marcus Hogberg, who wasn’t even with the NHL team out of camp but stepped in to become the de facto No. 1, due to injuries to starters Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson. Nilsson suffered a concussion and Smith isn’t sure of his current status, but hopes this long break will help him heal. Ditto for injured defenceman Mark Borowiecki, who suffered a torn ankle ligament on Feb. 13.

Also named by Smith for their progress were Tkachuk, for his will and determination, and Chabot, who stepped up his defensive play in the second half.

“He showed me he can play the big minutes and face the other team’s best guys,” Smith said.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

‘Proud’ of Colton, drafted by OHL Knights

Smith was congratulated by reporters for son Colton getting selected in the second round, 25th overall in the recent OHL draft by the London Knights. Colton plays forward for the Kanata midget AAA Lasers, coached by ex-Senators Shean Donovan and Chris Phillips. Donovan is also a player development coach for the Senators.

“It’s such a proud moment,” Smith said. “He started playing hockey when he was four years old, and he had ups and downs. Every time he grew his skating wasn’t very good. Then he grew into his body and was good again.”

Smith credits Donovan for developing Smith’s son and many others. Donovan had three players picked in the top 25, and his own son, Jorian Donovan, went sixth overall.

Smith laughed at the prospect of his son playing with the Knights, the sworn enemy when he was coaching the Windsor Spitfires.

“I certainly hated the London Knights growing up, I hated coaching against them but you must respect the fact that Mark and Dale (Hunter) do a phenomenal job,” Smith said. “They continue to have NHL prospects and players come out of there. They continue to outwork people in the league.”

All in all, Smith couldn’t imagine a better place for his son to get an opportunity to be a pro hockey player.

“Our whole family is proud,” Smith said, “and now it’s up to him to get to work.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.