D.J. Smith still might have a role in the Leafs’ fortunes this season.
The former Toronto assistant has taken over a rebuilding job in the nation’s capital, and his Ottawa Senators could be better than advertised — and a thorn in the side of the Leafs again.
“The scouting reports say they work hard,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday before facing Smith, who was on his staff in Toronto the last four years. “It’s great for Smitty (to be a head coach). He worked hard for it, he got himself prepared so he can be a coach in the NHL. He was a serial winner before he got there, and that’s important to me.”
A year ago, the Senators, who finished last in the league and allowed a league-high 301 goals, won three of four games against Toronto, a factor in the Leafs failing to secure home-ice advantage against Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
This group is different, yet quite familiar to the Leafs, with Smith and ex-Leafs Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis, Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey.
“(Those are) your culture guys, and arguably, they may be four of the better culture guys in the league,” Smith said. “They know how to play, they know how to do it day in and day out … They’re used to playing and practising at a high pace every day.”
Smith has a reputation as a coach who not only pays attention to defensive details but who gets his players to buy into that process.
Babcock took notice after Smith took a hard-working, defensively consistent Oshawa Generals team to a Memorial Cup win in 2015. That team upset the Connor McDavid-led Erie Otters in the OHL final, keeping McDavid off the scoresheet in two games.
“It was (former Leafs scout Mark Hunter) who told us about Smitty,” Babcock said. “When I met him, I was impressed. You prepare to be in the NHL, and when you’re there, you overprepare to be a head coach. Smitty is overprepared, Zaitsev requested a move out of Toronto at the same time Smith was in line for the Senators’ job.
Zaitsev, who often received praise from Babcock, created a wave of speculation over his exit request. He was a leader in Leafs ice time last season, and took untold punishment from opposition forwards as one of the most fearless Leaf defenceman in getting to pucks and battling in front of the net.
“It was a personal thing,” Zaitsev said Wednesday when asked about the trade request. “It’s not about the team, it’s not about the players … I liked it here. It’s just a new chapter in my life.”
A chapter that Smith, Zaitsev and the other former Leafs hope will include a rise in the standings. They have a pretty good idea what it will take.
“We have to get better every day,” Smith said. “Our identity is in how hard we work. When you ask me 40 games for now, it will be that way too.”
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