After a long search, the Ottawa Senators have found their new head coach.
On Thursday morning, the hockey club announced the signing of D.J. Smith to a three-year contract. Smith becomes the 14th head coach in franchise history, as he takes on his first NHL job in this role.
General manager Pierre Dorion expressed his excitement in a team press release:
“D.J. Smith is a winner. We believe he is the best person to drive the development and success of the Ottawa Senators. D.J. is a great communicator and an exceptional strategist. His passionate approach, coupled with his ability to teach the game, is exactly what we were looking for throughout the process. We’re thrilled to welcome D.J. and his family to Ottawa.”
Smith’s hiring undoubtedly adds another element to the historic rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Senators. The 42-year-old has spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach on Toronto’s bench. During this time, he has supported Leafs head coach Mike Babcock in rapidly turning around the franchise.
Through their work, the Maple Leafs have come along way in a short time. Four years ago, Toronto finished in last place with a record of 29-42-11 and 69 points. Compare this against last season, when they finished eighth with a record of 46-28-8 and 100 points. The improvement is clear. Although Smith’s focus in Toronto was on the defence and penalty kill, he also played a role in developing elite young players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly.
In a recent NHL player poll, he was chosen as the assistant most likely to get an NHL job because of his work with younger players.
Toronto’s position four years ago was eerily similar to Ottawa’s position now. Last year, the Senators finished in last place with a record of 29-47-6 and 64 points. However, they may already be ahead of where Toronto was in terms of drafting young talent at this stage. Players like Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Colin White, and Christian Wolanin are already playing regular NHL minutes. Meanwhile, top prospects like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton, Erik Brannstrom, are expected to make a strong push for NHL jobs this season.
It is also noteworthy that the Senators, at their worst last year, bested the Maple Leafs in the Battle of Ontario with a winning record of 3-1-0. This is a testament that their rebuild is already well underway.
Prior to joining Toronto’s coaching staff, Smith earned tremendous success in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Over the course of nine seasons, he spent time with both the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires.
As head coach of the Generals, Smith earned a Memorial Cup title in 2015 after finishing with a 51-11-2-4 record during their championship season. Over the course of three-seasons, he compiled a record of 135-53-3-13 with the team. He was also named the OHL’s Coach of the Year after guiding the Generals to a 42-20-0-6 record in 2013-14.
Before joining Oshawa, Smith spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. During his time in Windsor, the Spitfires captured back-to-back Memorial Cup championships in both 2009 and 2010.
A Surprising Hire?
Smith takes on a job in Ottawa that has been vacant since Guy Boucher was fired on Mar. 1, 2019. Immediately following that decision, Marc Crawford was named interim head coach.
To some, the hiring of Smith came as a surprise. At least seven candidates were rumoured to be in the mix, including some very recognizable names. These included Crawford, ex-NHL legend Patrick Roy, two former Senator head coaches in Jacques Martin and Rick Bowness, and Troy Mann, who is currently the head coach of Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, the Belleville Senators.
Despite the lack of name recognition, it appears that many of Smith’s former players and colleagues hold him in high regard. The combination of his esteemed reputation, winning track record, and experience working with young players to rebuild an NHL franchise should instill confidence in the organization and the fan base. For the next three years, it will be up to Smith to convince fans he was the right choice. He can achieve this by leading the young Senators through their most important years of the rebuild.
The end goal in three-to-five years, as promised by team owner Eugene Melnyk, is a Stanley Cup. Dorion said Smith was hired because he is a winner. The Senators will expect to win a lot more in the not-so-distant future.
Photo Courtesy: Ottawa Senators Hockey Club
Billy Morrison lives in Ottawa and covers the Ottawa Senators for Full Press Coverage. Follow Billy on Twitter, @BillyMorrison01.