This morning, Ottawa Senators Head Coach DJ Smith joined the TSN 1200 crew for his first radio appearance of the season. He talked about training camp, Tim Stützle, the Canadian Division and chewing gum sponsorships.
Let’s dive into the good stuff.
On Getting Started
Heading into training camp, Smith says they have a lot of questions. Some of the answers will come from the players, some from the league.
Players have been arriving in Ottawa for the past month, some committing to their 14-day quarantines since arriving from overseas. Players are currently working out in different groups, on and off the ice, and adhering to health and safety guidelines as they go.
“It has that early September feel around the arena, minus the more personal interactions,” Smith said, adding that the coaching staff has been hard at work at the Canadian Tire Centre since September.
While the team has an idea of what numbers, routines and schedules will look like, Smith and the rest of the league are awaiting the finer details from the league on what is officially expected as it relates to precautions and safety guidelines.
On the Excitement of a New Season
You can hear the excitement in Smith’s voice as he’s answering questions about the season ahead.
Smith specifically talked about two groups of people he’s excited to see in camp. First, the new players coming in who are looking to get their careers back on track. I would think he’s referring to both Matt Murray and Alex Galchenyuk here, as neither individual performed to the level they can last season. Second, he talked about the players coming up and knocking on the door.
“We’ve got some young exciting prospects of ours that have certainly proven they can do it in the American Hockey League and now they have to show they can transition it to the NHL. That’s what it’s all about, that’s why I was hired to come in and develop these kids and give us a franchise that can be competitive year in, year out.”
This is what you want to hear from the Head Coach of your favourite team as they continue through a rebuild. Smith was tagged as the player’s coach, the guy who can connect with younger players and get the most out of their performance.
On Tim Stützle
The topic of Tim Stützle was unsurprisingly brought up multiple times in this appearance. First, they talked about where Smith sees Stützle slotting in off the hop.
“[playing Stützle on the wing to start] is for sure [the plan]. Part of development is seeing what the league is like and what you can handle, giving a young guy more to handle every time,” Smith said, adding they’ll likely see him at centre as the season progresses as well.
Later in the interview, Stützle was brought up again, chiming in on expectations and what Smith wants from his first year in the NHL.
“We want him to be important by the end of the year. You’re not going to give anyone anything but there’s a reason you’re drafted third overall. You have a skillset that makes you a franchise changer and my job is to get the best out of him. By the end of the year, we want this kid to be in pressure situations so that, next year, this is someone who can really get up and get going.”
Needless to say, Smith is going to do what he can to ensure Stützle is able to be an impact player for the Sens by the end of this season, hopefully sooner.
On the New Guys
General Manager Pierre Dorion was busy this offseason bringing in fresh faces to round out his 30th place Sens, looking for improvements primarily in experience and physicality. And, in Erik Gudbranson, Austin Watson and Josh Brown, he certainly found what he was looking for.
The big acquisition this offseason, however, came in the form of Evgeni Dadonov.
“[Dadonov] might be the best bumper middle man in the National Hockey League,” Smith mentioned. “He’s a guy that can make your powerplay go. That was a sore spot for us a year ago. Bringing in Galchenyuk and Dadonov, plus adding [young offensive players], our powerplay is much improved.”
One player Smith seems particularly intrigued by is former third overall pick Alex Galchenyuk.
“He will probably start on the wing but with a shortened season, there will be injuries and he’ll get some games at centre,” Smith mentioned when being asked where he sees Galchenyuk in this lineup. “He had a bad knee injury which hampered him the past year, believes he’s back at full throttle. People he was skating with were really impressed with his work ethic.”
On the Centre Position
When pressed about the centre position, Smith’s answer was music to my ears.
“We don’t have veterans down the middle like other teams in our division. We’ll have to learn on the fly. Norris has a year under his belt, Brown has two in the American league. Tierney is the veteran. A guy I look to bounce back is Colin White after a bit of an off year.”
For me, this is the answer I was looking for. This sounds like a coach who is willing to give his young potential stars like Norris and Brown a real shot at lining up at their natural position this year. While it may be reading too deeply into things, Smith also didn’t mention Artem Anisimov once when speaking about the centre position. Hopefully both Norris and Brown will come into camp and earn their spots down the middle.
Specifically, Smith had great things to say about Logan Brown.
“Logan has an outstanding ability to make plays [...] he’s 6’6” with hands who can make plays. A guy like that, at some point, it will click in and he’ll hit the ground running,” Smith said while adding “Brown has as much or more skill than anyone we have. We’re going to need help on the powerplay, he’s a guy that can provide that for us.”
While every spot needs to be earned, it sounds like Smith is hopeful that Brown will secure a spot with the Senators this year. He mentioned multiple times in this appearance how he is looking for an improved powerplay attack and if Brown can make this team, he’s a sure fire option to dish the puck on either powerplay unit.
For Smith, and probably everyone else, newly acquired Matt Murray is the clear number one goalie. With Murray coming in, being a veteran goaltender in his prime, Smith feels really confident about the way the Senators are looking between the pipes this year.
“The surprise of the year last year was [Marcus Hogberg] who came in and gave us quality starts.”
While adding the goaltending position can change year to year, Smith feels he has two quality goaltenders who will push each other to perform well while, just as importantly, having a backup goaltender in Hogberg that you can trust to start as much as you need him to.
On the North Division
Smith laments, a bit, about being in what he deems to be the toughest division in the league with the best scorers in the league. When you look at having to face players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, Auston Matthews and Elias Pettersson more regularly, can you really blame him?
When asked about the baseball format that will see teams play each other two or three times in a row, Smith talks about how this season is going to feel more like a 56 game playoff than anything else.
“What we have to do is play playoff hockey every night.”
Smith adds that Dorion’s roster acquisitions like Gudbranson, Watson and J. Brown will take the load off players like Stützle, Norris and Brännstrom while firing up the team’s “ultimate competitor” in Brady Tkachuk.
When asked about this team’s ability to compete for a playoff spot, Smith says what we’re all thinking.
“If our young guys can perform at a level we think they can, I think we’ll be as competitive as anyone. Can we do it for 56 games in a row? I’m not going to put pressure on those guys and say that.”
On Thomas Chabot
Last year’s league leader in icetime is heading into another season in which we can expect him to contend for that particular record. On his potential partners, Smith admits that because Chabot plays so much, he’s likely to see many partners throughout the season.
“But we’ll start him with Gudbranson,” he says.
When pressed about the reason for Chabot playing so much last season, Smith recalls the number of injuries they faced, particularly missing veterans like Ron Hainsey and Mark Borowiecki for extended periods of time.
“If you ask [Chabot], he loved it,” Smith joked.
You can tell Chabot thrives when he plays a lot but it will be up to the coaching staff to get the most out of the rest of the blueline to ensure they’re not putting the top defender at risk by overdoing it.
On Expanded Rosters
With the ability to carry a taxi squad, Smith is asked about what that does for his strategy as a coach and how it builds internal competition.
“You don’t want somebody to take a night off and think he gets to keep his job. Whoever plays the hardest and performs the best gets to play every night.”
Smith appeared particularly excited about the ability to have more players ready in the wings to ensure his team never takes a night off. If players like Norris, Alex Formenton and Rudolfs Balcers don’t make the team out of camp, there’s a good chance they’ll be added to the taxi squad, especially with the AHL’s season in question. Usually, your extra skaters at the NHL level are waiting to sub in for depth roles. With this year’s format, Smith has the ability to flip just about any player out for a member of the taxi squad, because it’s bound to have a good mix of top and bottom end players, ready to take over for anyone who’s underperforming.
If there’s no AHL, however, Smith isn’t entirely sure what will happen.
“I don’t really have an answer for that,” Smith admits. “But there will probably be some kind of skill development opportunities. At some point, with all the injuries, prospects are going to get an opportunity to play up here, be on the taxi squad or at least practice with us,” Smith added. “Sean Donovan and Jesse Winchester will be working with them, they’ve been doing it all summer and doing an excellent job.”
It sounds like there’s some kind of loose plan and there will be an opportunity for those players who don’t make the taxi squad to continue playing in some capacity. You do wonder, though, if we’ll start seeing players get re-loaned overseas, should the AHL not be able to have a real season.
On Brady Tkachuk
One of the saddest parts for Smith this season appears to be not having fans in the building to watch Tkachuk do what he does best.
“It’s a shame we can’t have fans because he’s a guy who gets you up out of your seat. He’s exciting, he gives you energy and he’s someone you want to root for.”
Smith adds that Tkachuk is getting better every year. He’s learning the game more away from the puck, gaining confidence around the net and really understanding what his role on the team is - both on the ice but also as a leader.
On Chewing Gum Sponsorships
We all know Smith is a big gum chewer behind the bench. When asked if he was able to secure a sponsor for the season, he joked that he isn’t much of a gum guy in the summer.
The TSN 1200 crew will be working on getting him a sponsor, Wrigley’s or something.
“Alright, I appreciate it. I’ll let my agent know,” Smith joked, as his radio appearance came to a close.