This off-season has been one for the ages for the Ottawa Senators. And although it’s been very quiet since mid-July, the hype heading into the season is going to be as high as it's been in years.
With that hype comes expectations though, as the Senators have of course missed the playoffs for five years in a row. Everybody knew that these past few seasons were rebuilding ones, and there weren’t any actual playoff aspirations besides a little bit in 2021-22. But now that they have actually added star players such as Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux, not only do they have a real chance at making the playoffs, it’ll be seen as a disappointment if they don’t. And the one person who will be affected the most by making the playoffs or not? Head coach DJ Smith.
Last week, our pal Spencer Blake talked about how crucial it is that the Senators get off to a hot start, and that is very true not only for the team’s playoff hopes but also for Smith’s job security. If they have another horrendous start with only 5 wins in 20 games, I can’t see how Smith keeps his job. Pierre Dorion knows that the pressure is on both of them, and this team has to contend or else his job security gets weaker. Firing the coach mid-season is a bit of a “hail Mary” and it buys Dorion more time to get things back on track. Spencer analyzed the importance of a good start to the season, so I’m not going to rehash that.
Realistically though, not only does Smith need a good start to the season, he needs to get Ottawa to the playoffs if he wants to keep his job. Ian Mendes had a great article a few months ago talking about the rarity of both GMs and coaches keeping their jobs after missing the playoffs for so many years. He found that in the salary cap era, no coach and GM combination have both kept their jobs after missing the playoffs for four straight seasons, so it would be almost unprecedented for Smith to keep his job if the Senators are on the outside looking in. Smith would almost certainly be the first to go instead of Dorion unless new ownership came in and wanted both of them gone anyway.
The main takeaway from that article is that this fourth season is go-time for DJ, especially because there are no more excuses: the core is in their prime and they’ve added to the roster. I could definitely sympathize with him in the past having to roll out a lineup that featured Chris Tierney in the top-6 out of necessity and deciding which defense pairings would be the least catastrophic, so it could not have been an easy job with such a bad lineup.
But now the Senators actually look like a playoff team and the blame should be placed on Smith if they fail to perform. Let’s say Ottawa is able to get Jacob Chychrun out of Arizona. They could run a lineup later in the season looking something like this:
You cannot tell me that roster does not have enough talent to be a playoff team. Even without Chychrun.
What worries me a bit is that DJ hasn’t exactly excelled at anything systems-wise for the Senators since coming here. That can and should change with better players, but here are their ranks in chronological order for different categories since 2019-20:
GF/game: 25th, 20th, 26th
GA/game: 30th, 28th, 22nd
CF/60: 12th, 8th, 20th
CA/60: 28th, 30th, 25th
xGF%: 18th, 21st, 25th
PP%: 31st, 26th, 20th
PK%: 28th, 21st, 13th
SV%: 23rd, 28th, 16th
FO%: 14th, 26th, 25th
As you can see, out of the 27 rankings, they were only above average four times: two for shot attempts per 60, once for the penalty kill this past season, and once for faceoffs. The most recent numbers from 2021-22 didn’t see an upward trend, so those stats will have to shoot way up in 2022-23 for them to have a chance.
I truly do think that improved young players and solid additions will make those team-wide numbers look better, but Smith needs to be part of that solution as well. I think he’s done a fine enough job so far based on the hand he has been dealt, although I’d love to see a coach who can make the team better rather than simply not destroying them.
At this point, I’m more curious to see how Smith is going to handle things this season. I’m willing to give him the chance with a more talented roster because he’s earned that. At the same time, there should be a short leash because anything short of a playoff berth is a failure this season. Heck, a playoff berth shouldn’t even guarantee his job for the following year either depending on how they get there and what the players are feeling.
For his and the team’s sake, I hope he smashes it out of the park. The franchise could use some stability behind the bench, and he needs just 31 games to become the 2nd-longest tenured coach in Senators history. No pressure, DJ.