It’s been an incredibly busy offseason for D.J. Smith and his wife Christie. The pair invested in a Crossfit gym business in their hometown of Tecumseh just outside Windsor. And Christie gave birth to son, Mickey August 25th.
Almost immediately after, the Smith family returned to Ottawa where the Senators’ head coach has been ever since, meeting with his fellow staff daily.
Since an unfortunate and abrupt early end to last season, Smith is chomping at the bit to be up close and personal with his players.
For now, it’s viewing them work out and skate in small groups from afar as everyone awaits a decision from the province of Ontario’s Public Health Unit to see if and when the club can start training in larger masses.
Main camp is scheduled to open on December 31, and there’s been no indication one way or another if it’ll be permissible. This presents a strain on the team as a whole, especially when their season is set to open two weeks later.
But for now, Smith is content with planning a line up to some extent in advance, knowing there may be changes to come once the entire squad gets together.
The Senators’ coach hit the TSN1200 airwaves Tuesday with plenty to say.
On just being back at the Canadian Tire Centre and anticipating what the season may bring:
“It’s got that early-September feel, I guess around the arena these days. We can’t interact with them. There are different rules and regulations. It does have that early season feel. There’s a little more jump getting out of bed these days.”
“We’ve got some guys that are looking at trying to get their careers back on track. We’ve got guys looking to be regulars in the NHL. We’ve got some young exciting prospects of ours that have certainly proven they can do it in the American Hockey League. Now they’ve got to transition to the NHL. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I was hired to come here and develop these kids and give us a franchise that can be competitive year in, year out. This is Year Two of that process. I expect us to come out jumping. “
On the Senators’ prospective lineup:
“We kind of know who we want to play together, but we have some juggling parts with (Tim) Stueztle over at the World Juniors – when he’s going to come back. You have to plug certain guys in different spots. We certainly have tinkered with lines and partners. Everyone knows in hockey things change from day-to-day. I’m not putting a lot of value in that. It’s more on our structure – how we’re going to play – how hard we’re going to play. And I think everyone knows that with me, it’s pretty simple, you play hard, you’re a good teammate, and you’ve got a good chance to win. And I’ll be stressing that right from the get-go. We’ve got a lot of guys who know what to expect. We’ll be much better in that regard, coming out of the gate.”
On third-overall pick Tim Stueztle:
“Part of development is seeing what the league is like, and giving a young guy a little bit more to handle every time. So we’ll see how he responds when he gets in there. And what he looks like in practice, defensively, and all his strengths to go with it. I’m sure at some point we’ll have him at centre this year to see how he feels. But without having a look at him in the NHL on an everyday basis, it’s hard to say. But certainly, he’s going to start on the wing here for sure.”
“The expectation is we like to play him. We want him to be important by the end of the year. You’re not going to give anyone anything. That’s not the way the NHL works, but in saying that, there’s a reason you were drafted third overall. You have a skillset that’s a franchise-changer. My job is to get the best of him. I’ll start him a little slow and eventually give him a little more. But by the end of the year, we want this kid to be in some pressure situations so that next year, this is a kid that can really get up and going. You never know, some guys come in their first year and they’re unbelievable. Some guys take a year or two to get going. We’re not sure when that will be, but we know have a heck of a player.
On the free-agent signing of forward Evgenii Dadonov:
“I think Dadonov might be the best bumper on the power play in the National Hockey League. I don’t want to take anything away from…there’s a lot of good players. I know Nazim Kadri is one of them, in Colorado as well. But he’s a guy that makes your power play go. That was a sore spot for us a year ago with so many young guys. I think bringing in (Alex) Galchenyuk and him, and adding Stuetzle, and having some guys coming up from the American League that are offensive guys – I think our power play will be much improved. With Dadonov, he’s certainly a guy who can help us there.”
Where does newcomer Alex Galchenyuk fit?
“With this short season, 56 games, you’re going to have so many injuries. He may get some games at centre. From all reports, he had a back injury and that kind of hampered him last year. and everyone knows how that works. But I believe, he’s back at full throttle.”
“I know that people that saw him skate yesterday (Monday) were really impressed at his compete level. He’s at a point in his career, he wants to prove he can get back to that elite level at scoring goals. My job is to get him back and put him into opportunities where he can score goals. Certainly, everyone has their faults, but I think as a coach it’s my job as a coach to get him off and going. He’s certainly going to help us.”
On Senators’ centre depth:
“We don’t have veterans down the middle like some other teams in our division. We’re going to have to learn on the fly here. But you know what? That’s part of the NHL. (Josh) Norris has a year under his belt in the American Hockey League. Logan Brown does too. Chris Tierney is our one veteran who’s been in the league a long time and can play up and down the lineup. And a guy I’m looking to bounce back after a bit of an off year as they say, and he would say the same is Colin White. He’s put on some weight. He’s stronger. We look forward to him coming back and competing every night. I think right now, we’re young there, but with the young guys that we have, and a guy like (Shane) Pinto (arriving next season), that’s a position over time we’re going to get strong at.”
Can Logan Brown make the next step?
“Logan has an outstanding ability to make plays, vision to see the game. The unfortunate part for him that as a big guy, it takes a little longer to get up to the NHL speed. He’s 6’6”. And 6’6″ with hands that can make plays, so a guy like that at some point will click in, and he’s going to hit the ground running. Logan Brown has as much skill or more as anyone we have. We’re going to need help on the power play. He’s a guy that can provide it for us. It’s a short training camp. There hasn’t been a ton of offseason. Hopefully, every one is prepared to compete for jobs as they’re not going to be given. Just because you’re young and good doesn’t mean you’re going to make the team. There’s other older guys that are looking to take your job every day. There are guys in the league that will be available that are hungry for jobs. If these kids can prove that they deserve it, they’re going to, and he’s a guy that we have a big future here for.
Anoints Matt Murray as the team’s number one goalie.
“For sure, he’s 1. I think it’s probably our strongest position at this point. And that’s easy to say when you haven’t played a game. That’s probably our strongest position, having a veteran goalie in his prime that’s coming off a so-so year that’s hungry. I think the surprise of the year last year was Hogie (Marcus Hogberg). He came in last year and gave us quality starts. His work ethic (is strong), has a great attitude, a great guy. He’s going to able to push him, and he’s going to be able to give us starts when we don’t have to overplay a guy.
“We’re in maybe the toughest division with the McDavids, Draisaitl, Matthews with all the best scorers in the league. It’s not an easy task to play, but we feel we have a really good group.”
What the acquisitions of Josh Brown, Erik Gudbranson, Micheal Haley, Austin Watson do for their club.
“I think we have to play playoff hockey every night. We have to hit people. We have to make it hard on you. We want enough room for our young guys to play. I don’t want Norris or (Logan) Brown or (Drake) Batherson or (Christian) Wolanin or (Erik) Brannstrom – or any of our skilled guys, Stueztle – getting run out of the building on the road. That’s hard in the NHL some times. You’re playing in Vancouver, Calgary and it can get rough out there, and guys can shy away a little bit. I think we provided that for them. I think Pierre has done a really nice job of bringing some character guys in that are extremely competitive people. I think they’re going to make sure the kids are allowed to just play hockey. I think at the same point, I look for a really big year out of a guy like Austin Watson. I see a rejuvenated confidence in him. A guy like Gudbranson is looking to get it going. I know Josh Brown from junior hockey can play as well. These are ultra-competitive people. One; they’re going to take care of the kids, but two; they’re going to drive the bus with probably the ultimate competitor in Brady Tkachuk from a physical standpoint on a nightly basis. We don’t want a team that’s fun to play against.”
Who will be Thomas Chabot’s defense partner?
“I think it’s fluid. Chabbie is going to play so many minutes, he’s going to play with all kinds of different guys. We’re going to start with Gudbranson. I think he’s guy that’s going to give him an older presence back there that can talk to him and allow him to do his thing. I think defensively, Thomas got significantly better in the last 20 games. I wish we could’ve played the last 10 out. He got more competitive in his own zone. We all know he can skate. We all know he can make plays. Part of being a great defenseman is doing it all, and I think we’ve seen Hedman do that in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s hard to develop into that. I think Thomas Chabot is well on his way.”
More waxing on the D.
“Mike Reilly can take some minutes. A guy that I’m really looking forward to watching and seeing how he is throughout camp here is Wolanin. We want him to be a hockey player here. It’s not going to be given to him, but can he come in and take some minutes? Gudbranson, (Nikita) Zaitsev, Brown all defend and play. I don’t see his minutes (Chabot) quite as high. But when the game is on the line you want your best players on the ice, and he’ll be out there.”
On selecting an expanded roster:
“That’s what you want in the National Hockey League. You don’t want guy to take a night off and think he gets to keep his job. That’s not how it works. I don’t decide who really plays in the lineup in the long run, but they do. Whoever plays the hardest, whoever performs the best, gets to play every night. If you’re not performing it’s the next guy up mentality, We’ve got young kids here that are all competing for jobs, (Filip) Chlapik and (Rudolfs) Balcers. We’ve e got Micheal Haley who’s starving to get in. So if you don’t want to bring it. You didn’t do the work this summer, someone is looking to take your job. It’s a 56-game sprint. We think that we’re an ultra-competitive hockey team. This team isn’t as skilled at the moment as some of those other teams, but we will be in the future.”
“It’s a tough scenario if there is no American League. It’s tough for them. We hope there is, but if not there’ll be injuries. A lot of our prospects will get an opportunity to play up here – at least be on the taxi squad, it’s not an ideal situation you want. You want to your guys playing in games and game situations. We’ve got Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester, our skill development group will be working with them. And they’ve been doing an excellent job, they’ve been doing it all summer.”
On the importance of Brady Tkachuk:
“I think Brady is learning the game more away from the puck. I think he’s getting more confidence around the net. I think he knows what his game is, his leadership level on and off the ice. It’s unfortunate that the fans can’t get in here to watch because he’s the kind of guy that takes you out of your seat. Whether it’s a hit or a fight, or two goals, or an exciting play. He’s a guy you come to see play. He’s exciting, he gives you energy. He’s player you really want to root for.”
One thing is for certain, we don’t when and where the Senators will hold training camp, or play their games, but D.J. Smith’s team will be prepared for whatever comes their way.