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Ottawa Senators Season Preview: Coaching and Management

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Part III of our series mainly focuses on DJ Smith and Pierre Dorion

Colorado Avalanche v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

We’ve reached the final section of our season preview series, and that is the Ottawa Senators coaching staff and management. Part I and II of our season preview series discussing the forwards and defense/goalies have already been shared, so be sure to check those out if you haven’t already.

DJ Smith is entering his second season behind the Senators bench, whereas Pierre Dorion is entering his fifth full season as General Manager. Although there are others on the coaching staff such as Jack Capuano, Bob Jones, and Davis Payne, as well as Peter MacTavish as the assistant GM, Smith and Dorion will be the main focus of this article.

Coaching

The Good News:

DJ Smith seems to be a players coach’—every time a player speaks about him, they rave about his coaching abilities.

He’s certainly not an old-school John Tortorella “yell in your face” kind of coach, and I’m glad that it appears he gets along with his players. I think it’s very important for players and coaches to have mutual respect for each other, and it seems as if Smith has instilled that with this team. There is also an evolving culture of accountability, which carries down to Troy Mann, who has done a phenomenal job down in Belleville.

There are plenty of players who have enough skill to play on this team, and because of that, Smith is able to pick the players who want it the most and are never going to back down—I can’t imagine that is a bad thing for the long-term culture of this organization. There has been a ton of competition amongst everyone recently, and that will only increase over the next few seasons. I hope that he will be able to get the most out of his players because of that.

The Bad News:

Every coach has a honeymoon phase. It’s rare for a coach to be fired after just one season because most of the time, a new coach is seen as a breath of fresh air and everything seems better than the previous bad season. However, it doesn’t always last long. Even with the long list of Senators coaches, a lot of them looked fantastic early on. Dave Cameron, Paul MacLean, and even Cory Clouston looked like solid coaches in their first seasons—heck, part of the Senators brand was to “trust the system” under Guy Boucher! And look where all of those coaches ended up—none of them have been head coaches in the NHL since.

That’s not to say that Smith is headed down that same path, obviously. But I do think it is important to take a step back and see how he does in his second season because that’s where things begin to get more difficult. The team is no longer going to accept being a pushover, and results will need to be there eventually.

It will be very interesting to watch how he handles the young players this season because there are so many players (especially forwards) who at least deserve a shot at the NHL roster but there aren’t nearly enough spots. They now have a ton of veteran players, but it is crucial for the team to integrate at least a few rookies into the lineup if they want to start their upward trend. 99% of the time, if a battle is close, coaches will side with a veteran on a one-way contract over a rookie because the veteran is the “safer” option and he will have a much longer leash. The narrative so far has been that the best players will play, but I will wait to see how true that actually is.

I think most of their top prospects such as Josh Norris, Tim Stuetzle, Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, and Drake Batherson would be better than many of their depth players, although because some of those players fit a role that they want on the team, it won’t be as easy as it would seem to take their spots. I’m not going to pre-emptively judge Smith on this, but I do think it is something to keep an eye on since I’m sure all of us would love to see more young players in the lineup if they are showing that they are ready.

Outlook for this Year:

2020-21 will be a challenging season for Smith (and the rest of the coaching staff) as he will have to juggle a 29-man roster and make sure that everyone gets enough playing time if they deserve it. COVID-19 complicates things even more, so I certainly don’t envy having to go through a season like this.

I think we will be able to assess Smith much better after this season, although I feel like the Senators are quite confident in his abilities and will keep him on even if they do not take a step forward in terms of wins and losses.

Management

The Good News:

Dorion has been very good (for the most part) at getting proper value for players leaving the Senators. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Matt Duchene, Erik Karlsson, and Derick Brassard are good examples of that, then again, there are others we could discuss that I’d rather not mention...

Still though, I think for the most part, Dorion has done a good job at stockpiling picks and promising prospects, to a point where this is probably the deepest farm system they’ve ever had. If he is planning on moving multiple impending UFAs before the deadline (and it seems like he is), you can be sure that Ottawa will be getting even more assets, which is good asset management. Not all of the picks and prospects will end up working out, but that just gives you the luxury of being able to move valuable prospects for veterans while also keeping ones who turn into NHLers as well.

Dorion has shown a fair amount of patience with the prospects over the past few seasons, so that bodes well for any fears that he might rush the rebuild and make a regrettable trade. Although the 2020-21 season will be much less active for Dorion, as I mentioned on Monday, he averages over 10 trades per year so we should still have plenty of things to talk about before the trade deadline.

The Bad News:

Getting to rock bottom and selling off everybody is the easy part. Now comes the most difficult part: building a winning team from the ground-up.

Dorion has some solid foundational pieces to build around in Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stuetzle, Jake Sanderson, plus a bevy of other young talents. However, I’m not completely convinced that he will be the best at roster construction—which isn’t to say my mind can’t be changed or that I think he should be fired. The depth players that he has traditionally targeted have not been very good: players such as Nikita Zaitsev, Erik Gudbranson, Gabriel Dumont, Tom Pyatt, Chris Kelly (2.0), Cedric Paquette, Austin Watson, Scott Sabourin, Nate Thompson, etc. have all had underwhelming impacts in Ottawa and/or elsewhere.

Now, you can quibble with some of those if you would like, and I understand that he wanted to bring in certain qualities such as leadership and grit with a few of them. However, the depth of their roster has always been a problem (even when they were contending), so I hope that Dorion can recognize who is worth keeping around and who is not. The good news within the bad news is that many of these players could just be placeholders—perhaps they are just there while the team is somewhat tanking, and then better players will come in.

I’d love to see more acquisitions like Evgenii Dadonov and Matt Murray because those are the kinds of players who can actually make a difference. But for now, the jury is still out on whether or not he can actually bring in more quality players besides the fantastic prospects they already have.

Outlook for this Year:

This is obviously going to be a year like no other as we have no idea what trades will look like, especially between Canadian and American teams. In my opinion, Ottawa has eight players who they could be looking at trading, including Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, Chris Tierney, Alex Galchenyuk, Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn, Erik Gudbranson, and Mike Reilly. Although any of them could be moved, I’d be surprised if more than 3-4 of them get shipped out, just because it’s rare to see an exodus larger than that—and this season will make it even more difficult.

If I had to bet, I’d say that Anisimov and Coburn are the two most likely to move because we don’t hear much about their futures with the team at all. I could imagine a scenario where some of the other six stay (especially Paquette, he seems like someone they want to keep around), and some could walk as free agents, except for Tierney who is signed for an extra year.

I don’t expect Dorion to be nearly as active as last season, then again, if they’re hanging around a playoff spot halfway through the season, maybe he goes out and makes a surprise addition. I think the best thing for him to do though is to stay the course, move multiple expiring contracts for picks, and then re-evaluate in the off-season to see if they can add more impact talent. I think the 2021 calendar year will be extremely telling in regards to how much faith we should have in Dorion as the GM.

It’s very unlikely that Smith and Dorion’s jobs depend on the performance of the team this season, although you can bet that there will be much higher expectations in 2021-22. Even for the 2020-21 season, it sure would be nice to see a bit of progression in the right direction in order to have some hope that the rebuild is in the right hands.