While wins were few and far between for the Ottawa Senators during the 2019-20 regular season, first-year head coach D.J. Smith says the team accomplished their goal of changing the culture of the organization and developing better work habits.
“Well I think we got accomplished what we wanted to get accomplished which is we wanted to change the culture in a way that our team is going to show up and work every day, but it started in practice. You practice the way you play. It really is that way. And the practice habits weren’t great to start the year. You know, I was coming from teams of mine that always practiced hard and played hard so I think quickly with the help of a Ron Hainesy and [Mark Borowiecki and Dylan DeMelo and Jean-Gabriel Pageau] the team really did go to work,” Smith told TSN’s Brent Wallace via videoconference on Monday.
“And I’ve said before 68 out of 71 games I’d say our team either worked as hard or harder than the other team. So that was really what we wanted to accomplish now and ultimately to get the younger kids to play better and get important minutes. I think we did all those things. Now we want to win more hockey games.”
Before the NHL’s pause on March 12, Ottawa sat second-last in the Eastern Conference at 25-34-12 for 62 points. While a truncated regular season means their points total is a touch below the 64 they put up in 2018-19, their points percentage jumped from .390 to .437.
When asked if reaching the playoffs next season was the goal for his team, Smith quelled expectations a bit but insisted he wasn’t going to put a cap on his team’s potential.
“We probably are going to be a younger team next year. We’re going to have even more rookies join our team than we did a year ago in saying that our skillset should start to become higher. I wouldn’t say [playoffs are the be-all and end all] at all. We want to be as competitive as possible; we’re going to do everything we can to win every game,” he said.
“We quite possibly could be the youngest team in the league and I think everyone knows how the NHL works. It’s hard to be anywhere near winning the whole thing when you’re that young but we want to put ourselves in a situation where the following year I would say is a time for us where we’ve really got to push.”
Smith insists that push will come from habits he’s been trying to instill in his team since he took over.
“I think guys realized it was simple, I’m not going to be on you very much if you’re a hard worker and I think guys want to work. They knew what to expect, they knew practices weren’t that long as long as we worked hard, they came to the rink and they had a lot of fun,” he said.
The NHL Draft Lottery is scheduled to take place on June 26 and the Sens have a combined 25 per cent chance at winning the No. 1 overall selection and, by extension, the rights to Alexis Lafreniere. Regardless of whoever the Sens end up taking, Smith expects a more talented Ottawa team on the ice next season.
“Do we get first overall? Do we get a couple of these kids that are special players and do some things that other people can’t do? But we figure that you’re going to have three to four kids from Belleville, maybe one or two from the draft, so there’s going to be a lot more development, but I think our skillset is going to be higher.”