D.J. Smith is not intimidated by taking over the league’s last-place team.
Smith told TSN Radio 1200 Ottawa on Wednesday he feels prepared to lead the Senators through their rebuild after spending the past four seasons as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I’ve been through this scenario before, this will be my fourth time at it actually,” said Smith, who worked as an assistant with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires from 2005 to 2011 before spending three years as head coach of the Oshawa Generals. “Very similar to Toronto, you have to do things right from Day 1. Coming out of last isn’t a great spot to be in, certainly, but at this point, everyone’s going to listen, I believe. Everyone’s that’s going to be here is people that we want here and it doesn’t change overnight, but you can make sure that every day you’re doing it right… and eventually you see yourself climbing. We want to do that.
“First, is our work ethic (and) the culture. I think (general manager) Pierre (Dorion) has a done a real nice job of bringing in some pieces that are going to help in the dressing room and help these young kids develop properly and there’s a skill to that. Things are cleaned up off-ice, on-ice and you’re going to see this team slowly come on.”
The Senators have missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons after reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 and finished last in the NHL this past season. He takes the role from Marc Crawford, who served as an in-season replacement after Guy Boucher was fired in March.
Smith, who joined the Maple Leafs after they finished last in the league, said the key to changing the team’s culture and having the players buy in will be having a clear plan in place moving forward.
“Players want to be coached, they want to be led, and what happens a lot of the times, I think, is when teams kind of fall off their way or start to lose, is some of the guys think they can do it their way,” he said. “One of things when I talked to players before I got this job, some guys that have been in the NHL a long time, is they want direction, they want detail and they want leadership. That’s my job and Pierre’s job to provide that to them and that’s what’s going to happen.”
With the Senators, Smith inherits a roster with plenty of promising young talent, including budding stars Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot. He added that the team’s developing players who have not yet made the leap to the NHL will not be handed a roster spot when training camp begins.
“What has to happen is at the end of this season, players have to be better,” Smith explained. “My young guys have to be better, the guys that I expect to carry this team in the coming years, have to be better players. If some of them start in Belleville and finish here and they’re a better player at the end of the year, I’ve done my job.
“Certainly we want to win a lot more games, but at what cost? It doesn’t mean that you’re on the team Day 1 just because you’re a young guy, that’s not the way you develop players in my opinion. When you’re ready you’re going to get your opportunity and then when you’re here you’re going to get a chance and get a chance to do what we think you’re good at.
“I’ve sat down in-length with Pierre and (assistant general manager) Peter MacTavish and we have a plan. Now it’s up to the players. Nothing’s given to you - one thing is when it’s given to you, you’re not going to develop - so you’re going to work for it, but there is a plan for these young kids. Like I said, I’ve done this before and I believe the blueprint works.”
It appears Smith could be following the blueprint of the Maple Leafs when it comes to naming a captain for this season. The first-time NHL head coach said the team will not be placing the “C” on Tkachuk or any other younger player this season and will instead look to the team’s veterans for leadership.
The Maple Leafs have been without a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf to the Senators in 2016, while Ottawa did not have a captain last season after trading Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks last September.
“I think we’re set with what we’re going to do,” Smith said. “I want to talk to the players so I’m not going to say it, but I’d like the older guys to field the brunt for this year and let these young guys just play and get better. It will their team in time but they have to watch how it’s done and I think we bring a guy in like Ron Hainsey, that’s been around the league, played 1,050 games, he’s going to have to field some of the tough questions on the games where maybe we’re not great.
“I don’t want a young kid doing that and these young kids are going to learn from him so that when it’s their time to take over, they’ll be ready.”
The Senators added Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Tyler Ennis, all of whom played under Smith in Toronto, along with veteran centre Artem Anisimov this off-season.
Smith said his coaching staff will officially begin work for the season on Aug. 28, while the team will begin their preseason on Sept. 17 against the Maple Leafs in St. John’s, Nfld.