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31 in 31

Inside look at Ottawa Senators

New coach Smith to oversee youthful rebuild spurred by Chabot, Tkachuk

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

31 in 31: Ottawa Senators

31 in 31: Ottawa Senators 2019-20 season preview

NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen and NHL Network's E.J. Hradek discuss the biggest questions facing the Ottawa Senators for the 2019-20 season

  • 05:03 •

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Ottawa Senators.

The Ottawa Senators will have a much different look when they open the NHL season at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 2, both behind the bench and on the ice.

Former Maple Leafs assistant D.J. Smith was hired as Senators coach May 23. He specializes in developing young players and teaching defensive responsibilities, two of the mandates set by general manager Pierre Dorion in an attempt to improve Ottawa.

"We're excited about the turnover on our roster," Dorion said. "Not just the young players but the veterans. It's a significant difference, and we're trying to do this the proper way, adding quality, character core guys. Their mentorship can be valuable for our team success moving forward.

"We feel D.J.'s the man who can teach our kids and mix in some of the older guys -- the perfect mix for our rebuild."

 

[Senators 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the numbers]

 

After falling one goal short of reaching the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, Ottawa finished next to last in the NHL in 2017-18 (28-43-11) and last (29-47-6) in 2018-19.

The man given the job to guide the Senators rebuild moving forward is Smith, who worked with the Maple Leafs under coach Mike Babcock for four seasons after coaching Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League to the Memorial Cup title in 2015. The 42-year-old will oversee a much different roster than the one Ottawa had 12 months ago, when defenseman Erik Karlsson and forward Mark Stone were the cornerstones of the team. Karlsson (San Jose Sharks) and Stone (Vegas Golden Knights), along with center Matt Duchene (Columbus Blue Jackets) and forward Ryan Dzingel (Blue Jackets), have been traded since then.

They have given way to 22-year-old defenseman Thomas Chabot and 19-year-old forward Brady Tkachuk. Chabot finished 10th among NHL defensemen last season with 55 points (14 goals, 41 assists) in 70 games, and Tkachuk was second in points among NHL rookies with 45 (22 goals, 23 assists) in 71 games, behind Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson (66 points; 28 goals, 38 assists).

"Now it's about trying to push kids to realize their potential," Smith said. "There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It's in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It's something I really enjoy.

"[Tkachuk is] the type of player that I love. He's tough, he scores goals, he checks all the boxes. For me to have the chance to work with a kid like him, starting at 19, is unbelievable for me. And the same goes for [Chabot]."

Video: Hradek discusses Senators' young talent

The youth movement doesn't end there. Centers Colin White, 22, and Logan Brown, 21, forwards Drake Batherson, 21, and Alex Formenton, who turns 20 on Sept. 13, and defensemen Christian Wolanin, 24, Christian Jaros, 23, and Erik Brannstrom, who turns 20 on Sept. 2, each could be in the lineup opening night at Scotiabank Arena. White signed a six-year, $28.5 million contract on Wednesday. 

There will be plenty of veterans to help guide the young players after a busy offseason. Ottawa acquired defenseman Nikita Zaitsev and forward Connor Brown in a trade from Toronto on July 1; signed free agent defenseman Ron Hainsey and forward Tyler Ennis from the Maple Leafs on July 1, each to a one-year contract; and acquired forward Artem Anisimov in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on July 16.

Smith is very familiar with the four former Maple Leafs and understands their steadying influence on younger players in the locker room. Having been in charge of the Toronto defense, he's also hoping Zaitsev and Hainsey can help Chabot reach another level in his own end.

Ottawa allowed an NHL-worst 301 goals last season, and it's Smith's priority to fix that.

"Our kids need to learn how to play in their own zone," he said. "We have to keep the puck out of our net.

"We're in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League -- the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It's going to take time, but we'll learn to get better together. We're only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that."

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