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DJ Smith and the “Honeymoon Phase”: Now Comes the Real Test

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Fans have been upset with some of DJ Smith’s decisions, signalling that the next step is his first real test

Ottawa Senators v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Every new head coach seems like a breath of fresh air.

You get rid of the previous one who everyone was fed up with and everything seems great again. That was the feeling once Ottawa Senators head coach DJ Smith was hired in May 2019, as fans were tired of Guy Boucher and wanted a new voice. Pierre Dorion has even said that hiring DJ Smith might end up being the best thing he ever does in his career:

It’s quite the bold statement, especially for a coach who is just beginning his second season in Ottawa.

However, it’s extremely common for the organization and the fanbase to begin a “honeymoon phase” with their coach early on where it’s easy to love the coach, which NKB also talked about today in his “Five Thoughts.” Just like a “honeymoon phase” in an actual relationship, you only want to focus on why they are so amazing and how they are way better than your ex. It’s easy to ignore the flaws because you’ve fallen in love and don’t want to think about anything bad ever happening.

And then comes the most challenging part that will test real relationships and also NHL coaches: the second year.

Unless a coach is an absolute disaster in his first season, the reviews are going to be mostly good. DJ Smith, Guy Boucher, Dave Cameron, Paul MacLean, and Cory Clouston all had positive feedback in their first season (or half-season in Cameron’s case) with the team. But once the second season comes along, that’s when expectations are raised and there is more scrutiny. And in the real relationship, you begin to notice more annoying habits that didn’t bother you before but irk you the more you encounter them. Now you have to think about whether these frustrations can be tolerated or if they are part of a bigger issue—and that is what will have to be determined over the next season or two with Smith.

Of course, I am not saying that Smith should be fired or that he will even be on the hot seat this season. Nothing should change that quickly after four games. However, it’s quite apparent to me that fans have raised their expectations with him and are going to need to see improvements from the team overall, but specifically with the young players. If you search “DJ Smith” on Twitter, you will see how hard the fans have been on him the past few days, and some of it is warranted, while some of it is probably over the top.

On the positive side of things, the Senators have played four games this season. It’s easy to get reactionary early on, but this is just over 7% of the season (and under 5% of a regular year) and sometimes things don’t go your way! Furthermore, it appears that Smith has gotten buy-in from the players last year and many of the players this year as well. He’s been touted as a “players coach,” and while I can’t personally comment on the accuracy of that, I’m going to assume that is a strength of his.

Along with Troy Mann in Belleville, Smith has tried to create a culture of accountability, saying that the players who deserve playing time the most will get it. It’s something that I admire as they have the ability to create something from the ground up, so he deserves some leeway in creating this system he has envisioned.

But while fans seemed to be on board with his philosophy last year, I’ve seen the opposite reactions early on. This quote from Smith stood out the most after their OT loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday:

Go ahead and read the replies to that tweet...people were (rightfully) upset that young players were being blamed for that loss despite the fact that they were their best players, plus it was mainly the veterans who were put out there to close out regulation and in overtime.

Players such as Cedric Paquette and Braydon Coburn have played every game despite their poor on-ice results, and I’m seeing frustration about icetime in general on Twitter, Silver Seven, and elsewhere. Now, I should mention that online fanbases don’t always represent the majority opinion, so perhaps the overall fanbase is more forgiving towards Smith than it has appeared over the past few days.

However, what’s clear to me is that this is the beginning of expectations for Smith. People don’t expect Ottawa to be a playoff team, but they expect them to be one of two things (if not both):

1. Good enough to sneak into a playoff spot

2. Bad but let the kids play and see them take over the lineup

So I get the frustration with players such as Christian Wolanin, Logan Brown, Colin White, and Erik Brannstrom not playing much at all, plus their top young guns seemingly not having earned the full trust of the coaching staff. But while I share those frustrations, we should also take a second to breathe and see how the next portions of the season go.

If we are passed the trade deadline, the Senators are way out of a playoff spot, and young players aren’t getting more rope than they are now...then that’s a problem. For now, it’s unfair to be calling for Smith’s head, although we can still criticize his usage. As we’ve seen over the past week, Senators fans are incredibly passionate, and we’ve been hurt by too many coaches—we simply want Smith to be as good as he can possibly be. He’s not in the honeymoon phase anymore though and he’ll have to put up positive results in some form this season.

Let’s hope this relationship can become serious.