Smith: Sens happy to have ‘core piece’ Norris back in lineup
Following last night’s 6-1 victory, the Sens have scored 19 goals in four games and are averaging 4.75 goals per game. Head coach D.J. Smith praised the offensive performance of his club thus far, but says the team needs to improve on the defensive side of the puck if they want to reach their lofty preseason objectives.
“Good teams can figure out ways to win. We’ve come out really well in the previous three games. The goals are coming a little bit easy right now, and that isn’t going to always happen,” Smith said Thursday morning on TSN Radio. “We have to continue to limit their chances. Last night we probably gave up too many chances, in my opinion. If we’re gonna go where we‘ve gotta go, we’ve got to clean that up.”
A big part of Wednesday’s win was the return of forward Josh Norris following a nine-month recovery from shoulder surgery. The 24-year-old centre made an immediate impact, scoring two goals in his first game since January.
Smith was thrilled to see the former 35-goal scorer back in the lineup, adding that Norris' return gave a boost to the entire locker room.
“Josh has gone through a heck of a battle wanting to play and it felt good to know he was going to get out there,” said Smith. “He’s a big core piece. We know that without Josh we’re missing something, so guys are happy. They’re pulling for each other. It was good to have him back in the locker room and have him be a part of it.”
Norris played his first game with long-time linemate Drake Batherson and newcomer Dominik Kubalik. The chemistry between Norris and Batherson, who have been frequent line mates since 2019-20 while with the AHL’s Belleville Senators, paid immediate dividends with Batherson assisting on both of Norris’ goals.
Smith says the familiarity between Norris and Batherson was a big part of putting them together and that the addition of Kubalik gives the team a good complement to the top line with Tim Stutzle and Brady Tkachuk.
“Drake and Josh have played lots together, they played in the minors together. Obviously, Timmy and Brady are really feeding off each other with Giroux, so I think that gives me a nice combination,” said Smith. “Kubalik with Drake and Josh looked really good last night. I think there’s some familiarity. Drake had some jump in his legs playing with Josh and they’ll only keep getting better.”
With the club off to a hot start, Smith took the opportunity to praise second-year defenceman Jake Sanderson, who had a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s win. Although the 21-year-old has five points in four games, Smith said his focus on the defensive end of the ice is what separates him from other young blueliners.
“The No. 1 thing you do not see with today’s players, young defencemen especially, is that his main concern is shutting the other team down,” Smith said of Sanderson. “Points, he never speaks about. He’s not coming to me asking for offensive opportunities. He just wants the opportunity to shut down the other team's best player and he loves it.”
Smith also provided an update on Sanderson’s defensive partner, Artem Zub, who left last night’s game after being struck in the head with a shot from Alexander Ovechkin.
“Nothing major right now. We’ll see how he feels today but that’s a huge loss for us. That pairing of Sandy and Zub has been outstanding. We’ll roll with the punches,” said Smith. “I don’t think it’s going to be long term. He’s a tough kid. If there’s any chance of him hurting himself further, he won’t play.”
The Senators next game will come on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings and former teammate Alex DeBrincat. Detroit is also on a three-game win streak and both teams sit atop the early standings in the Atlantic Division at 3-1-0.