Mid-Season Report Cards: Coaching and Management

How have D.J. Smith and Pierre Dorion fared halfway through the season?

We graded the forwards. We graded the defence and goalies. But as pivotal as the players are to, you know, forming a hockey team, there’s always a staff working behind the scenes, serving as the backbone to the franchise. Before we reveal our ballots, we take a look at the final two categories on the list: coaching and management.

Today is also your last day to get in your report card submissions — fill out this form to have your say and be a part of this series. Let’s dive in!

D.J. Smith, Head Coach (Staff Grade: B)

Since being hired in the off-season as the successor to Guy Boucher, D.J. Smith has made a good, albeit not outstanding, first impression on Sens fans. For a front office that blamed a lot of its problems on locker room issues, Smith’s charisma and the way he handles himself with the media has breathed some fresh air into the Sens’ bench staff. He handled his response of having ties to a hazing incident involving Bill Peters with class and respect, and by all accounts, he seems to be popular among the players.

Oddly enough, with all the coach firings that have happened this season, he already ranks 25th in terms of longest-tenured current coaches.

Previously being employed in coaching roles for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires, he brought along some players who previously played for him, including Ron Hainsey, Tyler Ennis and Scott Sabourin. It’s his first head coaching job in the NHL, but he’s not exactly the most forward-thinking of coaches, placing value on the old-school grit and snarl. But above all, he praises hard work.

While Smith’s meritocracy has been seen by some as a revelation to a Sens bench that was previously lacking it, it’s come with a fair share of controversial decisions. Most notably, keeping Bobby Ryan as a constant healthy scratch at the beginning was a bit of a head-scratcher, given that he was putting up some of team’s best on-ice results in the few minutes he was receiving. Players like Jean-Christophe Beaudin and the aforementioned Sabourin have also received hefty doses of usage in the bottom six, when neither were projected to even be regulars in the AHL.

Looking at the defence pairs, another former Leaf in Nikita Zaitsev has been the team’s #2 defenceman next to Chabot, despite quietly having one of the worst defensive seasons in the NHL. The pairing of Hainsey with rookie Erik Brannstrom was also a fruitless exercise, and Dylan DeMelo has been relegated to a bottom pairing role despite seeing success with Chabot in their time together last season.

On the positive side, players like Anthony Duclair and Nick Paul are having the best seasons of their career, in part due to being given a chance to show what they can do in the top six.

As far as special teams are concerned, while the assistant coaches may carry more responsibility, the power play has been a thorn in the team’s side all season, ranking a league worst converting on only 12.2% of their chances. The penalty kill has significantly more tolerable, sitting in the centre of the league in 15th with a kill rate of 81.1%.

The Sens were never expected to be world beaters this season, which is why Smith has stuck around while seemingly everyone around him at the bottom has received the axe. It’s hard to judge a coach just based off half a season in his new position, but it’s so far been a mixed bag of positives and negatives, with the staff on the whole placing more emphasis on the positives.

Pierre Dorion, General Manager (Staff Grade: B)

Pierre Dorion. Navan rink-goer, girlfriend haver, iPad user, and secretive book reader. He’s a lot of things, and as is pretty typical for general managers in the first half of the season, his decision-making has been pretty light. In his most recent interview with The Athletic, he said he’s been doing a lot of scouting with some big decisions in store at the 2020 draft. But especially compared to the last three years, he’s been relatively out of the spotlight, and has earned himself a solid B.

The grades for Dorion partially trace back to the off-season, when he brought in veterans Tyler Ennis and Ron Hainsey. They later signed Scott Sabourin out of training camp, and traded for Vladislav Namestnikov when they ran into quick injury trouble, giving the New York Rangers Nick Ebert and a fourth round pick. A similar move was made at the beginning of January when half their defencemen were injured, picking up Mike Reilly from Montreal in exchange for a fifth round pick.

The rules for grading aren’t exactly black and white in terms of what to take into consideration, but the long-term contracts for both Thomas Chabot and Colin White were marquee moments for the franchise, committing big contracts to their top young players after previously forcing top talent out of town due to a lack of financial commitment. The fact that Chabot and White were RFAs made the situation very different in terms of leverage, but it took away a tiny bit of the apathy that the franchise previously created.

All together, Dorion’s earned a B for his solid work so far this season. But the real test will come in the next few months, with the trade deadline quickly approaching. Then we’ll re-evaluate.

Now, it’s your turn! Since we’re going to show the reader voting results this Friday, we’re going to have you guys grade all of the Ottawa Senators in the same poll, not just the forwards. The poll is available here and will close Thursday morning. While you’re at it, feel free to tell us what you think of our grades in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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