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GARRIOCH: Ottawa Senators' coach D.J. Smith keeping himself busy during NHL pause

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith
Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith

Even if you spend just a few minutes with D.J. Smith you’ll quickly realize he’s the kind of guy who has a difficult time sitting still.

Having spent a day with the Ottawa Senators’ coach last summer at his home near Windsor and then at the nearby Beach Grove Golf Club a few months after he was named to the post on May 23, 2019,  it’s obvious Smith likes to move around, he likes to have fun, he has a tough time waiting for anything to happen and slow play on the course is the bane of his existence.

That’s why it’s fairly easy to understand how difficult this NHL pause that started March 12 has been on the 43-year-old Smith.  He is marking his one-year anniversary of being named the club’s head coach by general manager Pierre Dorion Saturday.

“I can only do so much to keep myself busy,” Smith said with a smile in a video interview with this newspaper Thursday from his Windsor-area home.

It’s almost certain now the Senators won’t play again this season. If the league does return from its pause because of the novel coronavirus — and that still remains a  big if —the NHL will come back with 24 teams in a modified playoff format. The executive committee of the NHL Players’ Association was conducting a vote Friday on the Return to Play format and that was expected to pass.

Though no dates are set in stone, there’s been speculation the league would like to move to Phase 2 by opening rinks to small groups around June 15. Training camps for the remaining 24 teams would get under way some time around July 1 and then the league would begin play sometime close to July 15 with 12 teams in two hubs.

Dates are tentative because nobody knows where this will go.

Once the decision on how to move ahead passes, Dorion and Smith can officially start preparing for next season and will hold exit meetings for this group by video. When we spoke Thursday afternoon, nothing confirmed, but the 30th place Senators aren’t going to be in the mix when the final decision is made on how this summer will play out if the league does hold the playoffs in July, August and September.

“We’ll see what happens. If they say we’re coming back then certainly we’re going to come back and if they say we’re not coming back then, yes, we’ll have exit meetings,” Smith said. “We’ll put into place what we expect from these guys next season. That’s the biggest thing, if you don’t work hard in the summer, you can usually come out of the chute in September but you usually you run out of gas in November.

“We’ve got to be one of the best-conditioned teams in hockey. To play the way that I want them to play —which is fast, hard, physical, rough, you’re going to have to be in exceptional shape. If you’re not, it’s going to be really hard to do that. That’s the biggest thing for these guys is to do that. Whether I’ve got to go around to check on the guys to make sure everything is going good.

“There’s no excuses, we have to be one of the fittest teams in the NHL.”

There are roster decisions to be made by Dorion this summer. He said during the season he’d like to bring back unrestricted free agent defenceman Mark Borowiecki and would hold talks with veteran blueliner Ron Hainsey. Restricted free agents Connor Brown and Chris Tierney also have to be dealt with, but it’s possible the latter could be moved to make room at centre because his play has slipped.

There’s no question there will be changes and Smith will have his input when those decisions are made. The expectation is that four or five players from Belleville are going to push for jobs whenever training camp is held later this year. You have to think guys like Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Vitaly Abramov and Erik Brannstrom are among those poised to make the team.

Smith spoke with Norris, Batherson and Formenton Wednesday to congratulate them on their honours from the American Hockey League as all-stars with the club’s AHL affiliate in Belleville.

“It’s going to be up to Pierre to see who he signs via free agency and that will obviously be a big deciding factor on who makes the team and how many spots are available,” Smith said. “There’s some guys that have certainly pushed. All three of those guys in Belleville who were honoured are knocking on the door.

“You’ve got to prove it in the NHL but that’s what the AHL is about, to go down there and get to the point where you’re too good for the league and you have to be in the NHL. We hope that we can get that many (four or five) guys, but it’s a hard league.”

Like everybody else, he’s excited about the prospects in this draft with the club holding three picks in the first round — including two that could be in the top five depending on the outcome of the lottery. Alexis Lafreniere of Rimouski, Quinton Byfield of Sudbury and German forward Tim Stuetzle are all highly regarded and have the possibility of being franchise players.

“They say this is the deepest draft in a long time and, in saying that, there’s some really good players there,” said Smith, who was with the Maple Leafs when they won the Auston Matthews’ sweepstakes. “No. 1 through No. 10 there’s some really good players but certainly in that top group everyone talks about, if you can get your hands on one or two of those guys, they’re organization changers.”

He also has a few things on his plate at home that need attention.

Smith and his wife Christie Bezaire became partners in the All Level CrossFit gym at their home near Windsor in the last couple of months. The business was struggling because of COVID-19 so they lent financial support because they wanted to do their part to help the business get through this difficult period and they’re both big believers in this form of training.

When we talked to him Thursday, Smith and Bezaire were delivering t-shirts to their members who have been doing classes online since the business was forced to close during this period.

“I’m a Windsor guy and we wanted to do our part in the community,” said Smith, who was planning to spend part of Friday playing golf with San Jose Sharks’ coach Bob Boughner and longtime friend Warren Rychel.

Until the Senators return to work full-time, Smith is trying to keep himself busy and that’s just the way he likes .

bgarrioch@postmedia.com

Twitter: @sungarrioch

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