D.J. Smith certainly wasn’t the sexiest name on the Ottawa Senators’ coaching list.
That was Patrick Roy.
He wasn’t the candidate with the most NHL experience. That would have been Jacques Martin, Rick Bowness or Marc Crawford.
But when Senators general manager Pierre Dorion considered the head coach candidate he felt was best suited to groom Ottawa’s bevy of young talent, he was wowed by Smith, a former tough guy defenceman and a Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach for the past four seasons.
Dorion cited three factors with the 42-year-old Smith: His passion, his hockey knowledge and his off-the-charts energy level. At 6-foot-2 and 200-plus pounds, Smith still looks like the guy seeking trouble on the ice if he could find it. In three OHL seasons with the Windsor Spitfires, Smith posted 651 penalty minutes.
“He’s pumped,” Dorion said at Thursdays news conference to introduce Ottawa’s 14th head coach. “I’m pumped. We’re all pumped here today.”
Judging by social media reaction, Senators fans are less pumped. Smith will have to grow on them, by developing Ottawa’s growing list of prospects.
Despite the off-ice drama of the past year, Smith said he didn’t hesitate to choose Ottawa, “not for one second,” calling it the perfect fit for a new head coach.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to have these young guys . . . and a chance to rise with them,” said Smith, promising accountability.
“This team is going to play hard, they’re going to play fast and they’re going to work on a nightly basis,” Smith said. “Anyone who has been around me knows that that’s what I’m going to ask of them, but I am also going to give that from myself.”
Smith’s playing career was cut short by concussions, many of them from fights, he says. He managed 45 games NHL games (with Toronto and Colorado) and parts of nine AHL seasons. After failing a physical with the Avalanche due to his concussion history, Smith quickly shifted his focus to become an assistant coach with the Spitfires. As a captain, Smith had a special relationship with former Windsor head coach Paul Gillis. Smith wanted to forge those types of bonds with players he coached.
“A lot of times players don’t listen to the head coach,” Smith said. “I was that buffer.”
Elite players always find a way, Smith added. His specialty was bringing the best out of the player “on the cusp,” who could go either way, succeed or fail.
He talked to players about hockey, but more about life.
After six seasons as an assistant with Windsor, including back-to-back Memorial Cup championships in 2009 and 2010, Smith became a vocal head coach of the Oshawa Generals, improving them in each of his three seasons despite a lack of NHL prospects. In 2015, Smith won a third Memorial Cup, this time as head coach, defeating the Erie Otters and a guy named Connor McDavid along the way. Quickly, Mike Babcock and the Leafs came calling.
Smith says he put a lot of pressure on himself in Oshawa, knowing he’d have to win in junior to reach his goal of being an NHL coach. Now in his first NHL job, he was back to that buffer role – being the good cop with the larger-than-life personality.
“He lets you be young when you’re young, lets you make mistakes . . . but the older you get, the more responsibility he gives you,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Reilly.
Smith says that in jumping up to the head coaching position again, communication remains fundamental as he leads Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, and the rest of the young Senators. Smith promises to be the most positive presence at Canadian Tire Centre, which he says will have a “fun atmosphere” every day.
“You have to speak their language, but you also have to give yourself to them,” Smith says. “Today’s players are smart, they know what you’re about. You need to know what they’re about.
“I’m a motivator and I will find different ways to push buttons on different players.”
Speaking of language, Smith showed off some rusty school boy French from his days at an all-French school in River Canard, a tiny hamlet near Windsor.
D.J., by the way, stands for Denis Joseph.
“I think I’ll get that rolling by Christmas,” Smith says of his French. Strong move. That will come in handy in a bilingual hockey market like Ottawa.
Dorion rejected a suggestion the Senators were hiring on the cheap, vowing that he picked the best candidate, regardless of the cost. The pair agreed to terms on a three-year deal Wednesday.
Interviewing seven people for a head coaching job can be a juggling act. So it was that Smith happened to offer to drive Dorion and assistant GM Peter MacTavish across the border at Windsor last week. The Senators brass were there for a follow-up chat with Smith. Now, with Smith at the wheel, here was Dorion explaining to U.S. border patrol that he and MacTavish were on their way to Detroit, for a flight to Dallas to interview another coaching candidate, Bowness.
“D.J. was a great sport about it,” Dorion laughed. Smith laughed last, when he got the job and some very strong candidates did not.
In the end, Dorion went with his gut, saying he had a feeling “this guy is going to knock it out of the park.”
Dorion raved about an initial lengthy interview with Smith in Ottawa that went on for hours, time lost in a passionate hockey talk. Some might remember Dorion said the same about Guy Boucher when he was hired in 2016.
Of the six rejection calls, Dorion says the one to Crawford was toughest. Crawford, an assistant for the Senators under Boucher, took over as interim coach for the final 18 games of the season. The Senators went 7-10-1 in that stretch.
And now the book of Senators turns another page. Head coach No. 14 in 27 years.
The largest criticism surrounding last year’s Senators was their defensive play. Ottawa had the worst defensive record in hockey and allowed 302 goals against as the 31st-placed team. Over to you, Dr. Smith.
“Defence is a five-man unit,” he says. “We’re going to develop these defencemen, not only to be active in the rush but they’re going to be responsible defensively.”
Smith, who helped improve the Maple Leafs’ defensive play and penalty-killing in his time there, says the goals-against and chances allowed will improve with a team-first philosophy.
“And it doesn’t just fall on them [defencemen]. We are going to teach centres how to play low in their zone. Today’s centres have to be essentially a third defenceman.”
Smith reminded media that Toronto was dead last in the Eastern Conference when he arrived in 2015, as Babcock took over as head coach. A foundation to a competitive club was built on hard work, Smith says.
The Senators will aim to follow suit, striving to be as competitive as their provincial rival. Though not overnight.
“You’re never going to put limitations on a group . . . but also you have to manage expectations as to what your team look like,” Smith said. “We’re going to build as quickly as possible, but also be smart. We don’t want to rush anyone.”
Smith favours a “we over me” philosophy. Egos at the door, etc. It’s no coincidence, he says, that the St. Louis Blues carried that mantra to a place in the Stanley Cup final against Boston.
The Senators thoughtfully got their coach hire out of the way before the final series begins on Monday.