Former Leafs assistant coach DJ Smith has been hired as the new head coach in Ottawa, the Senators organization announced on Thursday morning.
Pierre Dorion, per the press release: "D.J is a great communicator and an exceptional strategist. His passionate approach, coupled with his ability to teach the game, is exactly what we were looking for throughout the process."
— Kyle Bukauskas (@SNkylebukauskas) May 23, 2019
For the Leafs, this officially opens up one of two expected assistant vacancies this offseason.
With DJ Smith’s move to OTT and expectation that Jim Hiller will be going elsewhere too, there are openings on the TOR bench. One is expected to be filled by Paul McFarland. He coached the Panthers No. 2-ranked PP last season
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 23, 2019
While this is not to say that Smith can’t succeed in a head coaching role for a rebuilding team in Ottawa — he was a highly successful OHL head coach, is described as a good communicator, and was well liked by the players, including some glowing reviews from Morgan Rielly — his time as an assistant seemed to be running its course in Toronto.
A significant part of Smith’s job, in addition to running the defense pairs, was running the penalty kill, which has greatly hindered the team’s chances in each of their past three first-round playoff exits. They were up against some lethal power play units in Washington and Boston x2, but it’s actually gotten worse with each passing Spring: 70% against the Capitals, 66% in 2018 against Boston, and 56% against the Bruins in 2019. In the regular season, they’ve hovered in the 80-82% range on the PK (i.e. typically above average), although 2018-19 was the first in which the Leafs dipped below 80 at 79.9% (T-16th).
It is always difficult to know how to mete out the responsibility between the head coach and his assistants, but watching Zach Hyman continue to lose faceoffs to Patrice Bergeron on the PK in the playoffs — on a busted knee no less — was curious at best and the passivity/lack of confidence on the units never recovered over the duration of the series. One mitigating factor worth mentioning this year is that he lost PK regulars Roman Polak and Par Lindholm (who was coming around as a solid PK option as the season wore on) and didn’t have adequate replacements for the kill in Nic Petan and Igor Ozhiganov.
His job running the Leafs’ defense pairs is much tougher to assess; it hasn’t been the deepest group in his four years here, and when management finally put together what looked to be an above-average group of six post-Jake Muzzin acquisition, he was down Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott due to injury, with neither close to 100% for the playoff run. At 5v5, the Leafs defense did put together a pretty good series against Boston as far as handling their forecheck and moving the puck north efficiently.
Smith is one of two assistants that are leaving this offseason, although nothing official has been announced on Jim Hiller’s future yet.
Paul McFarland named assistant coach
McFarland was an undeserved casualty of the coaching shuffle in Florida — Joel Quenneville in, Bob Bougher out — having run the second-best power play in the league in his second year as a Florida AC after he was hired out of Kingston of the OHL, where he coached the Fronts to three straight playoff appearances and two consecutive second-round appearances in his final two seasons there (He was also an assistant of DJ Smith’s in Oshawa beforehand).
As McFarland ran the power play and helped Boughner out on offense (Florida scored 3.22 goals per game in 2018-19, ninth in the league), this would seem to be more of a Hiller replacement than a Smith one.
The Leafs are looking for more creativity and new ideas on their power play, where they way underachieved as the season (and playoffs) wore on and became too predictable for the amount of talent they were throwing over the boards. There will also be a lot of attention placed on whether or not the approach to balancing the two units’ ice time remains in place next season. McFarland and Boughner played their top unit of Aleksander Barkov, Keith Yandle, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov around 3:30 per game last season (i.e. a lot) and that unit was the second-most effective in the league behind Tampa’s big group.
What was also notable about the Panthers power play was how dynamic and free-flowing it was with its interchanges and puck movement this year (while also looking to set up the Mike Hoffman one-timer quite often):
Some will naturally throw Sheldon Keefe’s name into this discussion for the other AC role should it officially open up, but he’s got legitimate head coaching aspirations in the near term — and may be poached away as soon as this offseason — to say nothing of how awkward it would be to place him in an AC role right next to Mike Babcock in this market, where every loss would be followed by a thinkpiece or a radio round-table on whether now is the time to pull the trigger on Keefe taking over the bench. The politics and optics aside, it may be a move Dubas would consider if it means he’s able to keep Keefe in Toronto, but it seems pretty unlikely as far as a fit for either Keefe or the Leafs.
It is notable that these AC replacements are being hired under Dubas now and presumably share a certain likemindedness with the Leafs GM that they’ll be bringing to Babcock’s bench; certainly, the two (McFarland and Dubas) are superficially similar in that McFarland is one of the youngest ACs in the league at just 33 (he joined the Panthers at age 31).