With the Senators having missed the playoffs for a sixth straight season and a new owner expected to take over this summer there are a lot of questions about the future of head coach DJ Smith and General manager Pierre Dorion. Although the Senators are a much better team than they were a few years ago, it was promised in 2019 that the Senators would have “unparalleled success” between 2021 and 2025, and two years into that window the Senators have still not made it back in the playoffs. So, is it time for the Senators to find a new head coach and/or GM?
DJ Smith’s time with Ottawa so far:
DJ Smith took over as head coach of the Senators before the 2019-20 season. There was no expectation for DJ Smith to make the Senators a winning team right away as the Senators had just traded away most of their core players from the 2017 playoff run and were in the thick of a full rebuild. The Senators were 30th in the league when their first season under DJ Smith ended 11 games early due to COVID-19, however this was not surprising and not the fault of DJ Smith. The Senators were one of only seven teams that had to go a full nine months without playing a game as they were not a part of the 24-team playoffs in the summer of 2020. When they did finally return it was for a 56-game season in which they would only be able to play against other Canadian teams due to pandemic border restrictions. This was an unprecedented situation and was especially difficult for a young rebuilding team. The Senators made some minor progress in the 2021-22 season but were still never really in the playoff hunt. Although this season was a normal 82-game format the Senators’ schedule and roster were still drastically affected by COVID with them having a major outbreak in November and having only been able to get one game in between December 19th and January 12th which caused a tight schedule for the rest of the season. The Senators were one of the NHL teams most impacted by the pandemic which might mean it would be smart to give Smith a bit more runway before deciding on his future especially since the Senators were able to get themselves legitimately in the playoff hunt with this year being unaffected by COVID.
One thing that has continued to remain the same throughout Smith’s tenure is large losing streaks early in the season sinking them for the rest of the year. The Senators Won only five of their first 20 in the 2020-21 season, four in 2021-22 and seven in 2022-23. There has been a clear pattern over the last three years of the Senators not being able to reach their full potential as a team until it’s already too late to make the playoffs which is something that could be the fault of Smith.
Should DJ Smith be fired?
Given the unexpected circumstances with the pandemic, I believe Smith should be the head coach to start next season however if the Senators get off to a similar opening 20 games as they have in the previous years under Smith they should not wait to replace him. The new owners should have a plan before the season begins for who could potentially replace Smith if they have to fire him mid-season.
Pierre Dorion’s time in Ottawa so far:
Pierre Dorion’s time as the Senators GM has had a lot of highs and lows. Dorion’s first season as GM was the 2016-17 season when the Senators went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, this was with a team that was almost entirely built by previous GM Bryan Murray who retired in 2016 after being diagnosed with cancer. Shortly after this playoff run the Senators went into a full rebuild and most of the major trades Dorion made were trades that were selling to build for the future. The most significant trade of Dorion’s career so far was in September of 2018 when he traded Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks. In exchange, the Senators received Josh Norris and the first-round pick that was used to draft Tim Stuetzle, who was their top goal and points scorer this past season. Meanwhile, Erik Karlsson was not the same player for a few years after the trade and even though he has got back to his old self this past season this was still a very successful trade for Dorion especially since he had very little leverage with other GMs knowing it was very unlikely they would be re-signing Karlsson.
Less than six months later, Dorion made what may be the worst trade of his career by trading Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. In exchange, the Senators received Erik Brannstrom and the second-round pick that was used to draft Egor Sokolov. Brannstrom has been a good player but has not yet developed into a first pairing defenceman and we still don’t know what Sokolov’s career may become but Mark Stone has been a star player for Vegas ever since he was traded and it feels like the return should have been closer to the return Dorion got for Karlsson. Recently we have seen Dorion start to try and transition the Senators out of the rebuild and turn them into a playoff team.
In the summer of 2022 Dorion traded for Alex Debricat who was coming off a 40-goal season and traded Filip Gustavsson in exchange for a much more experienced goaltender in Cam Talbot. He also signed veteran Claude Giroux. The signing of Giroux ended up being a better decision than anyone would have expected with him setting a career-high in goals at age 35. Debrincat was not as good as he was the previous year in Chicago but still a solid addition. Trading Gustavsson for Talbot did not end up being a good move as Gustavsson emerged as an NHL-ready goaltender and had a 22-9-7 record while Talbot had a disappointing season and had trouble staying healthy. Dorion made his first trade as a buyer at the trade deadline this season by trading for Jakob Chychrun and acquiring him at a much cheaper price than Arizona’s reported original asking price. This was a much-needed move that made Ottawa a playoff-caliber team and signaled the end of the rebuild
Should Pierre Dorion be fired?
Pierre Dorion has made some decisions in his time with Ottawa that do not look good in hindsight but has made up for this with some impressive steals. Although the rebuilding process has taken longer than anticipated the Senators are clearly on track to being a playoff team next year and a Stanley Cup contender within the next few years and it would not be right to fire Dorion right when things are turning around. However, similarly to Smith if the first quarter for the season is similar to how it has been in previous years it might be time to consider other options.