Our End-of-Season Report Cards series rolls on, with our staff’s assessment of the Ottawa Senators coaching and management in 2021.
There were a lot of question marks heading into this season: how much playing time would the kids get? How would the bevy of offseason additions fit into the young lineup? What kinds of returns would they fetch at the trade deadline? It’s safe to say that head coach DJ Smith, and general manager Pierre Dorion had their collective work cut out for them in a pandemic-shortened season.
As previously stated, these grades have been handed out with the entire 2021 campaign in consideration. We’ll also compare and contrast them with our midseason assessment. There isn’t any firm criteria or grading system; all 10 Silver Seven staff members evaluated Smith and Dorion through their own respective lenses, and opinions were varied. As always, C+ is considered ‘average’, and anything higher ‘above average’, while anything lower is ‘below average’.
Head Coach - DJ Smith: B (Midseason: B-)
One has to feel for DJ Smith. Through two seasons in Ottawa, he has yet to be behind the bench for a standard 82-game campaign, with both years having been shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with all that aside, Smith was thrown directly into the fire when he was hired as the Senators’ head coach in the summer of 2019. He inherited a team that had gone a collective 57-90-17 over the previous two seasons, and was still deep in the midst of an unprecedented roster teardown. Despite the difficulties that came with his first head coaching job, Smith has made the upstart Senators a more structured team, if nothing else.
Ottawa’s second-year bench boss bore the brunt of criticism early in the 2021 season, with the team off to a historically awful start. Fans quickly became frustrated by the team not only losing, but doing so while deploying aging veteran in lieu of the organization’s crop of youngsters. Players like Erik Brännström, and Alex Formenton in particular had a long road to becoming everyday NHLers.
As the season wore on, Smith slowly began to incorporate more youth into the lineup. He even went so far as to scratch Erik Gudbranson — who was wearing an ‘A’ at the time — in favour of getting the likes of Brännström into games. It was a process that was helped along by injuries to Derek Stepan and Austin Watson, as well as Gudbranson, Braydon Coburn, and Cedric Paquette being traded, but the Senators were a much more fun team to watch by season’s end.
When all was said and done, Smith navigated Ottawa through an abysmally rough start, and a barrage of injuries. He showed a willingness to trust young players with increased ice time, especially in the crease, and the Senators showed signs of major improvement as the season wrapped up. There are still questions to be asked about his player deployment philosophy — it took way too long to get Jacob Bernard-Docker into games — but Smith has performed admirably under the circumstances.
Time will tell whether or not he is the coach that will help the Senators to take the next step, but so far so good.
General Manager - Pierre Dorion: C (Midseason: D+)
Like Smith, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion managed to boost his midseason grade, as the team’s longterm vision began to come into view late in the season.
Things were not looking good for Dorion early on. Save for the second-round pick he recouped for taking on Coburn and Paquette from the Tampa Bay Lightning, the GM’s offseason adds appeared disastrous: with the bevy of ‘veteran leaders’ doing little more than acting as warm bodies. This was especially true of Matt Murray, whose early-season play had fans shuddering when they recalled his massive contract extension.
There wasn’t much that Dorion could do to improve the team in the midst of the season, given the Senators’ lack of appetizing expendable assets, and the difficulty of making trades around COVID-related border restrictions. Still, Dorion did about as well as he could. Re-acquiring Ryan Dzingel from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Paquette and Alex Galchenyuk bolstered the bottom six, and signing Bernard-Docker and Shane Pinto to entry-level deals added to the infusion of youth.
Dorion also performed well at the deadline, managing to flip Mike Reilly to the Boston Bruins for a third-round pick, and gain seventh-rounders for Coburn and Gudbranson. The waiver claim of Victor Mete from the Montreal Canadiens also smells like roses, especially with the Senators maintaining RFA control.
As the offseason begins to take shape, Dorion has already turned his attention to re-signing players, with fan-favourite Artem Zub being the first to ink a new deal. There are major extensions to get done in Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson, but things seem optimistic on both fronts.
To improve his standing, Dorion needs to make some additions to the roster over the summer, but do so by bringing in effective players, and taking caution to not box out young players with one-way deals coming in.
All in all, GMPD’s final grade was hurt by a rough offseason on the pro side, but with the team entering 2021-2022 with heightened expectations, he has a great opportunity to bump his marks up.
How would you grade Smith and Dorion, respectively? Do you agree with our assessment? Let us know in the comments below.