The Ottawa Senators fired coach DJ Smith on Monday, one day after the team’s fourth straight loss. His sacking comes after just 26 games in the 2023-24 season. Smith was replaced by Jack Martin on a temporary basis.
The club also announced that Daniel Alfredsson – the team’s all-time leader in goals and points – will join Martin’s staff as assistant coach. In addition to Smith, the Senators also fired assistant coach David Payne.
Smith was in his fifth season behind the bench in Ottawa and compiled a 131-154-32 record over 317 games. The Senators had a .464 points percentage during Smith’s tenure, which ranked them 25th in the NHL during that span. Ottawa never qualified for the playoffs under Smith, with their best finish coming with 86 points last season.
The 46-year-old Smith is tied for the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the NHL, having inherited the job in May of 2019. However, his lack of success has separated him from teammates with similar tenures. Of the four coaches with longer tenures than Smith, three of them — John Cooper, Jared Bednar and Mike Sullivan — have delivered Stanley Cup championships for their teams.
The fourth coach, Rod Brind’Amour, has led Carolina to three straight division titles and boasts a .653 points percentage behind the Hurricanes’ bench.
Smith’s contract was due to expire after this season, although the club retained the option to bring him back for the 2024-25 season.
Martin, 71, has not been a head coach in the NHL since his time with the Montreal Canadiens in the 2011-12 season. However, he served as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins for several seasons, winning a pair of Stanley Cups as part of Mike Sullivan’s staff in 2016 and 2017. Martin was recently hired to serve as a special advisor to Ottawa’s coaching staff.
He ranks 17th in NHL history with 1,294 games as a head coach and served as head coach of the Senators from 1996 to 2004. In that window, Martin led Ottawa to the playoffs in all eight of his full seasons, including a President’s Cup title in 2002-03. .
Alfredsson was the captain of the Senators from 1999 to 2013. During his career, Alfredsson scored 444 goals and made 713 assists in 1,246 games. He spent 17 seasons with the Senators and joined the team as an employee in the hockey operations department before the start of the season.
The Senators are last in the Eastern Conference with an 11-15 record.
Why did the Senators take this step now?
When speaking to reporters after he temporarily inherited the general manager’s portfolio, Senators president of hockey operations Steve Staios said he supported the job Smith was doing in Ottawa.
“I believe in this coaching staff,” Stause said Nov. 1.
Then when he brought Martin into the team on Dec. 6, Stause said his goal was to shore up Smith and his beleaguered staff.
“My job is to identify areas throughout the organization where we can add some support,” Staios said. “Our commitment is to provide all the tools and resources necessary to achieve success.”
However, the Senators struggled to show any consistency, posting a 3-6-0 record in nine games in December. With aspirations to end a six-year drought, the Senators woke up Monday to find themselves sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference with just 22 points.
Staios and owner Michael Andlauer likely did this as a preemptive move ahead of Ottawa’s next home game on Saturday. At various points this season, the home crowd at Canadian Tire Center expressed their displeasure with the loud “Fire DJ” chants echoing inside the arena. If the Senators returned home for Saturday’s game against the Penguins after a blowout loss, those cheers likely would have been significantly louder. — Ian Mendez, Senators beat writer
Where did things go wrong for Smith?
Unfortunately, an atrocious start to the season has been the hallmark of the Senators under Smith. And once again this season, Ottawa has found itself outside the playoff picture.
When the Senators checked the standings Monday morning, they found themselves ahead of only four teams in the league in points percentage — Columbus, Anaheim, San Jose and Chicago. The Oilers, Wild and Blues have already made coaching changes in an attempt to motivate their hockey teams and possibly save the season.
This is another slow start for Smith, who faltered early in each of his previous four seasons at the helm in Ottawa.
He scored after 20 matches under Smith
There are certainly some extenuating circumstances for Smith, not least a squad ravaged by injuries and absences. He was currently without No. 1 defenseman in Thomas Chabot, as well as Shane Pinto. Goalkeeping was average or below average during his tenure.
But no matter who was in and out of the Senators’ lineup, they struggled to keep the ball out of their net under Smith. Defensive zone issues have plagued this team for the better part of five seasons and were evident again in the six-goal concede loss to the Golden Knights on Monday.
Ottawa is now conceding 3.42 goals per game this season, which ranks 26th in the league overall. — Mendez
What can Martin bring to the table?
For starters, a new sound may be needed.
And for the most part, the Senators’ group of talented young players like Matthew Tkachuk, Chabot, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, and Jake Sanderson only had Smith as a coach at the NHL level. (Tkachuk and Chabot also played under Jay Boucher and Mark Crawford.) Martin is a well-respected veteran coach who can change the atmosphere and style instantly.
Ottawa hopes Martin can work his magic with the franchise again.
The Senators were a directionless franchise and couldn’t shake their expansion tag when the 43-year-old Martin was named head coach in January of 1996. They had some talented young pieces assembled on the roster but lacked the structure and discipline to move the program along To the next level.
However, within 14 months of taking office, Martin had transformed the Senators into a playoff team. His arrival marked the beginning of the most dynamic and successful era in franchise history, as they were a perennial Stanley Cup contender for a decade.
Martin’s 622 victories rank 22nd all-time. — Mendez
(Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT News/AFP via Getty Images)
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