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How much is DJ Smith to blame for the Sens’ record?

The coach has drawn considerable criticism this season. How much of it is warranted?

NHL: NOV 11 Kings at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Christmas break is always a good stopping point in the season - a chance to look back on the first few months of the season and evaluate the team’s performance. We didn’t want the break to happen so soon, but nevertheless, we have a few weeks without Sens hockey ahead of us, and plenty of stuff to reflect on from the start of the season.

And one topic I’ve been meaning to write about is coaching.

DJ Smith has become a bit of a polarizing figure in Ottawa. He took a lot of heat when the Sens were on their big losing streak in November. That seems to have eased up a little bit, but a lot of fans are still pretty unhappy with him. With the team likely to miss the playoffs for a franchise record fifth consecutive year in 2022, it kind of feels like something needs to change behind the scenes before next season. I find that coaching can be quite difficult to evaluate, given that so much depends on personnel, but I’m going to do my best to evaluate DJ’s last few years with the team using the few factors we actually can observe and evaluate: development, systems, and deployment.

Development

We all know how NHL coaches usually treat younger, less experienced players. It’s baffling, and frustrating, and for some reason the one thing upon which every single coach seems to agree, but coaches hate giving younger players too much responsibility. Even when everything points to a player being the best option on the first line, or the top pairing, or on the penalty kill or in the dying minutes of a game, coaches will insist on rolling out washed up veterans who are very obviously not going to do the job as well as a rookie would.

You can certainly find examples of DJ Smith doing this to his players. However, overall, I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by how much trust DJ Smith has put in younger players.

Here’s a quick overview of his track record with younger players.

The bad:

  • Erik Brännström - couldn’t crack the lineup in 2019-20 or 2020-21 despite putting good numbers and being one of the team’s top prospects, then started 2021-22 in the AHL. Future in the NHL is still up in the air, but it’s not looking good.
  • Logan Brown - kept going between the NHL and AHL until he was eventually traded to St. Louis. He seems to have found his game there.
  • Filip Chlapik - Also couldn’t crack the NHL lineup on a consistent basis, and wasn’t happy with the role he was given in Ottawa. Ultimately left for the Czech Republic.

The good:

  • Lassi Thomson - set a franchise record for time on ice in an NHL debut. Played in all situations, including the penalty kill. Saw his ice time gradually reduced, and was eventually sent down, but seems to be responding well, and the coach has only ever said great things about him.
  • Nick Paul - Spent years bouncing between the NHL and AHL and being punished for every mistake. Under DJ, seems to have blossomed into a fantastic third liner with offensive upside.
  • Shane Pinto - Saw significant time on the penalty kill in his first stint with the team. Began the season as the team’s #2 centre, ahead of veterans Colin White and Chris Tierney after outplaying them in training camp.
  • Alex Formenton - also instantly became a mainstay on the penalty kill, and has spent significant time in the top 6 ahead of veterans.

There are also cases that are a little less clear-cut. Jacob Bernard-Docker hasn’t been given the same opportunities as Lassi Thomson, and was healthy scratched for three games before an injury forced him into the lineup, but he did get to play on the top pairing against the Flyers last week. We all remember the first few weeks of the 2020-21 season, when DJ refused to play Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson in important situations and benched them for long periods of time, but he did eventually hand them the reins. Same goes for Zub, who couldn’t crack the lineup at the beginning of last season, but hasn’t been healthy scratched since his first game, and has the second highest average TOI on the team after Chabot this season.

And then there’s Stützle, who was very sheltered last season and benched on multiple occasions, but has also turned his defensive game around completely and is now being trusted to carry the second line.

Basically, there’s some good and some bad. DJ at least seems willing to change his opinion on young players, and reward them for really good play. That may seem like the bare minimum, but it’s actually pretty rare with NHL coaches. Anyone else remember Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone in the bottom six under Paul McLean? Also, ask Rangers fans about Alexis Lafrenière.

Systems

The word “system” gets thrown around a lot when we’re talking about coaches, and it can mean a lot of different things. Broadly speaking, it generally refers to set plays and positioning - where the coach wants the players to be on the ice, and what he wants them to do. In the defensive zone, are players each picking an opposing player to defend against, or are they picking an area of the ice to cover? Who is starting the breakout? Are the forwards in the right place for the breakout? In the offensive zone, how are they keeping the puck in? Are they setting up high danger scoring chances?

With this team, it’s… difficult to notice patterns. There’s one really bad thing they keep doing in the defensive zone, which is having the defensemen way up high and leaving the centreman alone in front of the net. We saw a good example of it in the Islanders game:

The Sens have… a lot of issues in the defensive zone, and it’s kind of hard to tell how much of it is coaching and how much of it is personnel. Re-watching goals against the Sens from the last few games, I’m seeing lots of giveaways and lots of guys losing track of the players they’re supposed to cover. DJ doesn’t exactly have a lot to work with, but a good coach should be able to teach his players how to defend.

Again, I’m going completely off observation here, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan when it comes to breakouts, and the success of a breakout seems to depend on who’s on the ice. A lot of the defensemen on this team seem inclined to bank the puck off the boards before even attempting a pass, which does not usually yield good results. The top line gets hemmed in their own zone a lot, whereas Stützle’s line is constantly going up and down the ice. Until recently, the whole team was terrible about giving up odd-man rushes, which suggests some issues with their offensive zone strategy. It’s very encouraging that we’ve seen both Chabot and Stützle improve their defensive game recently, but they are just two players, and we haven’t really seen a team-wide improvement.

It’s hard to make definitive statements about DJ Smith’s system, but this is definitely something to keep an eye on. Right now, Smith is getting bad results with a bad group of players. If the lineup improves and the results don’t, that’s when we need to worry.

Deployment

Finally, let’s talk about DJ’s deployment, which is obviously the thing that is most easily observable in a coach. Which players are getting the most ice time and playing in the most high-pressure situations?

DJ’s work here is… fine. It’s fine.

Fans have been dunking on his defensive usage all season, but according to Natural Stat Trick, the top three defensemen in TOI per game (all situations - not just 5v5) are Chabot, Zub and Holden, which is probably how it should be. Zaitsev is next, which is not good, but when DJ split up Chabot-Zub, he did say it was because all the other pairings were so bad. That, plus the fact that he paired Thomson with Chabot for a while, suggests that he at least knows Zaitsev isn’t the ideal option on the top pairing.

Also, I know a lot of us were frustrated with Josh Brown’s continued presence in the lineup before he got injured, but Brown does rank 9th out of 11 defensemen in TOI/GP, ahead of only JBD and Heatherington. Yeah, he’s always in the lineup when healthy, but at least he’s only ever playing bottom pairing minutes. I know that sounds like the lowest bar imaginable, but I would like to remind you all of Jared Cowen and Cody Ceci. You know, I really hate this league sometimes.

At forward, the ice time distribution is more or less what you’d expect. The coach seems to like Austin Watson a bit too much, and Tyler Ennis should probably be getting more ice time, but there just isn’t a lot to work with there anyways. I will say that I never would have had the idea to put Zach Sanford on the first line when Batherson was out with COVID, but that worked out really well, so… props to DJ on that one? Recognizing that Paul was not working with Stützle and replacing him with Formenton was also a good move, if an obvious and slightly delayed one.

If you’re noticing a pattern here, yes, the bar is very low, and yes, I feel silly praising the coach for making very obvious lineup changes. However, I think it’s easy to nitpick bad decisions while forgetting the kinds of galaxy-brain things other coaches would do that Smith at least doesn’t attempt. I am not kidding: I am convinced that there are NHL coaches who would put Josh Brown on the first pairing, and keep him there for at least half a season out of pure stubbornness. Paul McLean would do it.

Final Thoughts

I know a lot of fans have been very frustrated with the coach, and I have to admit that I don’t really understand the frustration. I am not wildly enthusiastic about DJ Smith, but he does not make me nearly as angry as past Sens coaches have, so that’s something. Congrats, DJ!

I want to end this piece on a slightly depressing note: all coaches are bad. As Sens fans, we’ve seen plenty of galaxy-brain lineup decisions and bad systems over the years. Most other fanbases complain about their coaches having weird grudges against perfectly good players and overusing big, physical players and never giving rookies a chance to succeed. I’ve seen Sens fans advocating for the team to bring in a man who famously tried to get the Sedin twins to dump-and-chase, and recently criticized Trevor Zegras and Sonny Milano for scoring a goal that was too cool and fun. No, thank you.

Maybe the Sens could do better than DJ Smith. But they could do a lot worse, too.