When any team, even a rebuilding team, goes on a nine game winless streak this early in the season, questions arise.
For the Ottawa Senators, a winning season was never a realistic goal for this year. Winning some games was possible. Building upon last year’s season was almost inevitable. Despite what some of the players said about pushing for the playoffs - and despite the confident statements from the General Manager - anything more than a 20th place finish this season was likely out of reach before the puck even dropped on January 15th.
As things do in the hockey world, rumours and questions started coming out over the past week about the situation in Ottawa. Nothing concrete was mentioned, none of the Bob McKenzie’s of the world have chimed in to give any firing or dismissal comments any legs. But, when your season starts as poorly as this one has for Ottawa, the volume on these kinds of things starts to increase.
So, the question becomes: is anyone really on the hot seat in Ottawa yet?
Let’s start with The Roster Maker™, Pierre Dorion.
There are few people that would say Dorion has an easy job as the General Manager of a professional hockey team in a Canadian market owned by someone who, over the last few years in particular, has caused more embarrassment and grief than anything else when it relates to his hockey club.
That being said, we have now entered the calendar year in which the run of Unparalleled Success™ was said to begin and, right now, there are a few things about this team that you could say are unparalleled but success isn’t a word that comes to mind on that topic.
Ahead of this season, Dorion made some roster moves that were meant to do two things. First, insulate the rookies to ensure they’re not thrown into the fire before they’re ready. Second, make the Ottawa Senators a more competitive hockey team today.
The skaters brought in by Dorion this offseason - Erik Gudbranson, Cedric Paquette, Austin Watson, Josh Brown, Alex Galchenyuk, Brayden Coburn and Derek Stepan - appear to be incapable of doing either, as a group. Arguments can be made that Watson brings an edge to the lineup, and he’s scored a few goals to go along with it, but at even strength the Senators are worst off with these players on the ice. Quite literally. If you sort for 5v5 CF% at Natural Stat Trick, the bottom of the list is basically a list of Dorion’s offseason moves.
Now, this isn’t everything of course. There’s more to it than just looking at one stat and proclaiming Dorion’s offseason good or bad. But it’s a great indicator that the players brought in to insulate the rookies and make the team more competitive are doing neither of those things, really. At least, not successfully.
Then there’s Matt Murray. Aside from Thursday’s excellent performance against Montreal - which we hopefully see more of! - Murray’s first season on his big new contract hasn’t been going well. He, of course, hasn’t had much help. He’s been hung out to dry many times and you can basically point to one goal each game where you can put the blame on a number of players but none of them are the goaltender.
On the other side of things, however, Dorion has done a number of good things in this rebuild. He’s made a number of moves you can look at as a positive. He locked up Thomas Chabot long term and has a pretty straight forward opportunity to do the same with Brady Tkachuk in the coming months.
Not even the biggest San Jose haters in the world would have guessed the first round pick in the Erik Karlsson trade would be third overall - so we can’t really give Dorion all the credit for Tim Stützle - but the other pieces in that trade have also looked great so far. Josh Norris, in particular, has developed into a top six centre while Chris Tierney is playing meaningful, responsible minutes for the team this year.
We also saw a glimpse of what Erik Brännström can bring to the Senators on Thursday night. It was noticeable that his speed, ability with the puck and prowess in the transition game was appreciated on Ottawa’s otherwise far-from-great blueline.
With players like Alex Formenton, Logan Brown, Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto (I could go on) on the way, the pieces are here that could make this team actually tough to play against, for better reasons, in the near future.
Next, we move to The Deployer™.
DJ Smith was brought in because he’s a player’s coach. He was lauded for connecting with young players, helping them develop, building rapport with his team and being someone who players will follow into battle with their heads held high. So far, it appears this is true. Not that we would hear any different, but my gut says this part of his resume has come as advertised.
The questions for Smith have been well documented and they’re all around relying on unsuccessful veterans while shortening the leash of younger players for making the same mistakes the veterans are making. A fantastic case is with Colin White. You have a player who came into camp, was applauded for how he looked on the ice, then couldn’t unseat Derek Stepan or Artem Anisimov at the beginning of the season. Very early in his multi year contract, Smith decided that the then 23 year old centre shouldn’t play over players he is, without question, already better than. Since White has won his way back into the lineup, he’s been one of the most consistent forwards. The question is whether this decision was truly based on his play or if something else was involved in it. Because, if it’s based on his play and his ability, that’s a big red flag for the coach’s ability to identify who should be in the lineup.
Smith also has a penchant for size and physicality which works if those big and physical players are also good. The problem has been that the players who are known for clearing the net haven’t been doing so. Those that were supposed to make the Senators “tough to play against” haven’t made the Senators tough to play against - but Smith, for the first seven or eight games of the season, kept playing them.
On the contrary, over the past few games, Smith appears to have started to lean more on his better players. And, for the first time this season, his top nine forwards have, mostly, been his best nine forwards. He saw that the rest of the lineup was lacking skill with Norris, Tkachuk and Drake Batherson playing together so he created a more balanced top six attack. He commented on how Christian Wolanin’s underlying numbers say he should play more, and then he played him more.
The question for Smith is whether or not you believe this was the plan all along or if Smith is changing his strategy after seeing his initial approach was the wrong one. If it’s the former, that’s fine. If it’s the latter, it’s still fine because it shows a coach who can admit when he’s wrong and work to fix it. The only real problem there is that he thought playing the players he was playing was the right move in the first place - when there was a ton of evidence on both game tape and spreadsheets that clearly show it wasn’t.
What say you?
There are reasons one of both of Dorion and Smith’s seat should be feeling a tad warm just as there are valid reasons why they should be comfortable with the season so far. The question is, how warm are their seats now? Was this early failing anticipated and, therefore, Eugene Melnyk isn’t thinking about shaking things up?
Let’s have it out in the comments, how hot are DJ Smith and Pierre Dorion’s respective seats at this stage of the season?
When it comes to the GM and Head Coach’s jobs, how hot are their seats?
This poll is closed
Cold and comfortable - they’re not going anywhere
Lukewarm - all eyes are on a quick turnaround
Quite toasty - you could roast a marshmellow on these seats
Hot hot hot - change is a-comin’