Weekly Question: What’s the biggest challenge facing D.J. Smith next season?

With the Sens roster practically complete, we turn the spotlight over to the person in charge from here on out

With news breaking this week that defenceman Christian Jaros had agreed to a one-year, two-way extension, the Senators’ once-uncertain roster situation finally has some clarity.

Here are the players signed to one-way deals for the upcoming season (via CapFriendly):

X - White - Dadonov
X - Tierney - C. Brown
X - Galchenyuk - X
Paul - Anisimov - Watson

Chabot - Gudbranson
Wolanin - Zaitsev
Reilly - Brown

Murray (starter)
Nilsson (LTIR)

While there are gaps we can fill in with some of the players signed to two-way contracts who will inevitably be on the roster — Brady Tkachuk at 1LW, Drake Batherson on 2RW or 3RW — we have many more questions than answers. Here’s what is on my mind; I’m sure there are many more curiosities that you could leave in the comments, too:

  • While I tried to list the players above as accurately as possible in terms of role and position, there’s... a ton of uncertainty. Is Colin White a centre long-term? Is he a top-six player long-term? Does it even matter given that there’s no one else with NHL experience to play in that role, or is that what the Alex Galchenyuk signing was for?
  • On that note, Galchenyuk, Nick Paul, and Artem Anisimov have all played parts of their pro career at centre and at wing. The two Russians are the biggest question marks, as all indications from Anisimov’s play last season is that he’s lost a step and might be better off utilizing his still-dangerous shot from the wing. Nick Paul has primarily played his last two seasons at left-wing, but was touted as a reliable, two-way centre for much of his prospect career and that might appeal to D.J.
  • With Anthony Duclair’s return looking increasingly unlikely, and making the assumption that the team won’t scratch Anisimov, I only see two other spots at forward for some collection of: Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Josh Norris, Filip Chlapik, Alex Formenton, and Vitaly Abramov. Dadonov and Anisimov are the only two forwards above 30, but Pierre Dorion and co. haven’t exactly “cleared space” for the kids despite what’s been touted.
  • On defence, the players are pretty “set”, but where they play is up for grabs, especially on the right-side. After playing with Cam Fowler last season, I expect Erik Gudbranson to play with either Thomas Chabot or Christian Wolanin on the team’s top-two pairs, while Nikita Zaitsev has the salary — but not the statistics — to justify getting that other spot. Josh Brown seems cemented into the third-pair ‘tough guy’ role with Jaros as his main competition, while Erik Brännström will compete to be his partner over Mike Reilly and his very-scratchable 1.5M salary.
  • In goal, Matt Murray’s expected to be the team’s undisputed starter with Marcus Högberg getting a decent chunk of games. The expectation is for Anders Nilsson to at least start the year on the long-term injury reserve. /

These important decisions are almost all coaching decisions, and they’ll make D.J. Smith’s sophomore year behind the bench fascinating to follow. The coaching staff’s job will be compounded by the fact that these players will not have played a meaningful hockey game for at least nine months — or even longer depending on if/when the NHL starts back play — and that this is an expansion draft year where the team will have to inevitably make some decisions that might indicate who is a part of the long-term plan and who isn’t. I don’t think there’s any way these circumstances were part of Pierre Dorion and Eugene Melnyk’s 112-page plan.

Moreover, even if the upcoming season was a normal one, the fanbase seems torn on what to reasonably expect from this group of players. On one hand, most evidence points us to the fact that the team will be a bottom-dweller for the fourth straight season and likely have another top-10 pick for the 2021 NHL Draft. Any hope that the team has of outperforming these expectations rest less on the players ages 24-plus, but rather on six or seven U24 players who should be playing meaningful roles on the team.

Last season, the team opted — for better or worse — to keep most of the team’s young talent in Belleville. Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Brady Tkachuk, and to some extent, Drake Batherson and Erik Brännström, were the only U24 players playing prime minutes. Part of the worry with the team bringing in players like Austin Watson and Galchenyuk is what that might mean for the young players who have contract flexibility.

Hence, in my mind, the biggest challenge Smith and company will be to actually put the kids in a position to not just survive, but thrive at the NHL level. If he doesn’t, I think he’ll just be another name referenced like Cory Clouston and Dave Cameron, as opposed to Bryan Murray, Paul MacLean, and Jacques Martin.

What do you think his biggest challenge will be?

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