Senators coach believes time with Maple Leafs showed him path to success

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The Ottawa Senators’ rebuild reminds coach D.J. Smith of the one he was part of with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Smith was an assistant with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19 prior to being hired by the Senators.

He believes that time with the Maple Leafs, where they went from last in the NHL in 2015-16 to reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past four seasons, can provide a similar path to success for the Senators.

Ottawa opens its season against Toronto at Canadian Tire Center on Friday (7 p.m. ET; TSN5, RDS, TSN4, NHL.TV).

“Absolutely,” Smith said Thursday. “It’s very similar. It’s a patient process, but you can see when guys turn into real NHL players and they start playing every day.

“I believe here in Ottawa we’re going to have a good team for a long time.”

The Senators’ future will be on display against the Maple Leafs, including forward Tim Stutzle, the No. 3 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, who will play his first NHL game on his 19th birthday.

Smith isn’t guaranteeing the Senators will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, but does see them trending upward with young players such as Stutzle, 22-year-old forward Drake Batherson, and 21-year-old forwards Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris.

That young core evokes memories of where the Maple Leafs were after selecting center Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.

With Matthews joining young talent like forwards Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, Toronto has become a consistent playoff contender.

Smith said the Senators’ offseason veteran additions, including forwards Derek Stepan and Evgenii Dadonov, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and goalie Matt Murray will help nurture their young core, a blueprint he learned with the Maple Leafs.

“The first year in Toronto (2015-16), we finished last but they still had Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk and some older pieces that were there,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what we’ve done this year. 

“Last year we sold off everyone and allowed some younger players to play. And now I think we’ve insulated them with the likes of, say, Stepan being a Bozak. And on the back end, a guy like Gudbranson being a Ron Hainsey, who we had in Toronto at the time.

“I see a lot of similarities in the young talent coming up too, like Drake and Norris. In Toronto you had [Andreas] Johnsson, [Kasperi] Kapanen, and Morgan Rielly was coming into his own, and on and on. It’s very similar.”

Smith’s ability to develop players, first as a coach with Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League (2012-15) followed by his time with the Maple Leafs, was one reason the Senators hired him.

General manager Pierre Dorion said Smith is a significant reason why he expects the Senators to be successful this season.

“To me, we’ve got to take a huge step forward,” Dorion said. “I think it is not going to be always about wins and points, it’s going to be how we play, how we compete.

“D.J. loves competitive people and we want to be one of the most competitive teams in the NHL. We want to be one of the hardest teams to play against. We want two points, we want you to earn two points against us, and at the same time we want our younger players to develop in the proper manner.

“It’s going to be a fun year.”

And what better way to start than against the Maple Leafs in the first of nine games in the Battle of Ontario.

“I think this is a rivalry that is going to heat up,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They’re a team that’s going to get better every single day as an organization, the number of young players they have coming in addition to all the players they’ve added. It’s essentially an entirely new team.

“They’re going to be a lot more competitive this season, and as they continue to develop they’re going to be a force in the league.”

Keefe’s respect for Smith dates to coaching against each other in the OHL from 2012-15, Keefe with Sault St. Marie, Smith with Oshawa. Keefe was hired as coach of Toronto of the American Hockey League in 2015, the same season Smith was hired by the Maple Leafs.

Keefe, who replaced Mike Babcock as coach of the Maple Leafs on Nov. 20, 2019, said the Senators provided “some of the toughest games we played in the [2019-20] regular season.” The Senators were 0-1-1 against the Keefe-led Maple Leafs.

“There’s an extra sense of urgency when Ottawa plays against Toronto,” Keefe said. “I felt that.

“We’re expecting no easy nights against the Senators.”

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