Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith good at keeping big picture in focus

Ottawa Senators' head coach D.J. Smith leads the team's training camp in Ottawa, on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (CP/file)

Earlier this week, we shared a moment of appreciation for the Ottawa SenatorsThomas Chabot, one of the most under-rated star defencemen in the NHL. 

In his return from a four-game absence after getting rocked by Washington Capitals’ winger Tom Wilson, all Chabot did was score two goals and add an assist while leading Ottawa to a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. And all of that in Chabot’s 300th NHL game at age 25. 

Today, we’re taking a step back from the player’s bench to appreciate the man who runs it – head coach D.J. Smith. 

Smith made sure Chabot was fully healed from the hit (“The body didn’t really like it,” Chabot quipped) before putting him in harm’s way again –  just one of the small things Smith does to keep the big picture in perspective. 

Smith, suddenly an NHL veteran coach coming up on his third anniversary on the job, knows his team is not ready to win now. The important, competitive seasons are down the road. And so he wisely resists the temptation to rush injured young players before they’re ready – hence the scene of the past few weeks: Ottawa doing battle and hanging in there, despite missing top forwards Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and Shane Pinto, as well as two-way centre Colin White (expected back Saturday vs Montreal). 

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The coach likes to say he is going to wait until these players are “1,000 per cent,” when 100 per cent would cover it. But we get the idea. 

Rather than cave to the pressure of winning a few extra games now, whether for job security or any other reason, Smith continues to make the right calls. Without some of his best offensive weapons for weeks on end – while also missing Chabot for four games, which meant three-fifths of his first power-play unit was out, and without starting goaltender Matt Murray for four games – Smith adapted. And the team got by. 

Although there were games when the Senators were clearly missing their quick-strike offence, there were just as many nights when the team managed by playing a new defensive system, one that was a bit easier for the replacement forwards – players such as Adam Gaudette, Dylan Gambrell, Parker Kelly and Mark Kastelic. 

We talked a lot around here about Ottawa’s crazy February schedule. Before this gentle break before facing the Montreal Canadiens Saturday, the Senators played 10 games in 16 days, culminating in the win over the Wild. In that stretch, Ottawa was 5-4-1, despite key absentees. A pretty masterful bit of patchwork coaching by Smith. 

The losses included an overtime game against Boston last Saturday and a 2-1 battle with the New York Rangers the next day. 

A common theme: The Senators play teams hard, and they don’t care if they are ranked among the league’s elite such as Carolina (a 4-3 Ottawa win on Feb. 8) or Minnesota. It also helps that they are getting excellent goaltending from Murray, Anton Forsberg and even Filip Gustavsson when he has had to fill in. 

Smith had some interesting comments this week about winning and competing with a “lighter” roster due to injuries. 

“You can have good players, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” Smith said. “It’s the details of the game, doing the right things to win. What we’re doing now, with a bit of a lighter lineup, hopefully continues to carry on when you get goals back in your lineup. 

“You have to score to win, and we’re having a tough time scoring. But what we’re doing is we’re playing hard away from the puck. And that has to continue as these goal scorers come back.”

The implied message is clear. The elite teams are the ones that combine work ethic with talent.  

“And as they become older and better, as long as that (effort) stays the same, you become a team like Minnesota that has turned the corner,” Smith says. 

This team loves to play hard for Smith as noted by former Senators defenceman Marc Methot, the longtime playing partner of Erik Karlsson, and now a Sens broadcaster for TSN.

You can learn about a coach by his dealings with individual players. Gaudette, picked up by the Senators on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks in late November, has been a useful addition playing wing and centre under Smith’s guidance. For his part, Gaudette says Smith is easy to play for and has helped instill confidence he has lacked for most of his career. (Gaudette did have a productive 2019-20 season with the Vancouver Canucks, delivering 37 points in 59 games.)

Smith was asked what he had done to restore Gaudette’s game, after he rode the bench in Chicago.

“I just think I’m honest,” Smith said. “I try to be as honest as I can with players – when it comes to, ‘You’re playing good, bad or indifferent,’ and I think he appreciates that. One of the biggest things, when I got into coaching, was knowing that players hate ‘grey,’ they hate not knowing. And he’s a guy that wants to be told straight up: ‘Am I good, am I bad? What do I have to do to play?’”

Smith says he tries to separate the player from the person. If a guy has a bad game, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, or should be shunned the next day at practice. That player is still a human being. Still part of the group. 

“He’s a good kid who’s lost his confidence along the way, and I think he’s finding his confidence,” Smith said. 

“And I think he’s having fun playing hockey. It doesn’t matter what you do, how hard you train, if you’re not having fun at it you’re not going to do well. 

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“When you’re having fun, you always play your best.”

Maybe it’s as simple as that. Smith makes hockey fun. He doesn’t overreact to losses – and they came in bunches at the outset of the past two seasons. 

General manager Pierre Dorion loves to repeat some variation of this line about Smith: “There’s never a bad day at work when D.J. is at the rink.”

There is a human element to Smith that is endearing. Beneath the fiery competitor and former tough guy defenceman is the funny hockey uncle, and we get snippets in those short post-game clips the team’s website shares from the dressing room. After the frenetic win over Minnesota, Smith could be seen entering the room carrying a folded, wrapped, hockey sweater. And he called for Drake Batherson, who has been out with a high-ankle sprain since getting decked by then-Buffalo Sabres goalie Aaron Dell a month ago.  

Brady Tkacuk took Batherson’s place at the All-Star Game in Las Vegas. 

“Here’s your All-Star jersey, Drake,” Smith said, handing him the package. “You didn’t get to go. Atta boy, son.” The room exploded. 

Importantly, the young core relates to Smith. Even if he was criticized over the first couple of years for favouring veterans in his lineup, especially on defence, over time the kids are gaining precious experience, whether in Ottawa or Belleville. 

Tkachuk, Chabot and the other lieutenants believe in their coach. Minus some of their top forwards, this team survived because it was willing to do what Smith asked of them. And they did it gladly.

Smith’s reputation for being a players’ coach filters through the organization. I recall a conversation I had with defensive prospect Jake Sanderson of the University of North Dakota, before the Beijing Olympics. At the end of a long chat, I asked if he had had any contact with Ottawa’s head coach. 

“I’ve had a couple of calls with D.J. and he just seems like an unreal coach,” Sanderson said. “I can’t wait to get there.”

No doubt, Sanderson based that enthusiasm not just on a couple of phone calls but also from conversations with his pals in Ottawa and Belleville, fellow UND types such as Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker. 

Smith knows he still has to prove himself when he has a more complete team and the added pressure to win. All in due time. For now, he is the right man to coach the Senators, a team that doesn’t quit regardless of the score in a game or Ottawa’s place in the standings. 

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