Brady Tkachuk

D.J. Smith hired as new Ottawa Senators head coach

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D.J. Smith is the new head coach of the Ottawa Senators, the team announced on Thursday.

The 42-year-old Smith had been an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last four seasons. Before that, his coaching career consisted of nine years in the Ontario Hockey League as an assistant with the Windsor Spitfires before moving on to the head coaching role with the Oshawa Generals where he won the 2015 Memorial Cup.

“D.J. Smith is a winner. We believe he is the best person to drive the development and success of the Ottawa Senators,” said general manager Pierre Dorion. “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. We’re thrilled to welcome D.J. and his family to Ottawa.”

Smith replaces Marc Crawford, who took over as interim coach in March following the firing of Guy Boucher. It was three years ago that the Senators requested permission from the Maple Leafs to speak with Smith, but were denied and then moved to hire Boucher.

(This sadly squashes any chance of Patrick Roy working for Eugene Melnyk, which would have been glorious theatre.)

Others in the mix the Senators job reportedly included Troy Mann of AHL Belleville, Nate Leaman of Providence College, and in a blast from the franchise’s past, Dallas Stars assistant Rick Bowness, who was their first head coach from 1992-1995, and Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who was behind the bench from 1996-2004.

As Behind the Benches notes, one of Smith’s areas that he oversaw with the Maple Leafs was the penalty kill, which was a major Achilles’ heel in their seven-game Round 1 defeat to the Boston Bruins, checking in at a 56.3% success rate. During the regular season, the PK has dropped off slightly over the last three seasons going from 82.5% to 81.4% to 79.9% in 2018-19. While that number has gone down, his other responsibility, defense, has seen shots allowed rise from 31.9 per game in 2016-17 to 33.4 per game this past season.

Dorion is hoping that a youthful coach, who was handed a three-year deal, can mesh well with what will be a youthful roster of developing pieces like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot, among others.

Smith certainly has his backers around the NHL as he earned 8.3% of the vote among players in the NHLPA’s annual poll in 2017-18 asking which assistant would make the best head coach.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Who should coach Sabres, Ducks, Oilers, Senators?

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When you look at the four conference finalists remaining in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, you’ll notice a variety of coaching stories.

There’s quite a mix with a midseason replacement (Craig Berube for the Blues), a rookie breakthrough (Rod Brind’Amour for Carolina), someone who’s been effective with an established team (the Bruins’ Bruce Cassidy), and a veteran running a star-packed squad (Peter DeBoer with the Sharks). There are many ways to skin the cat, and that point becomes clearer when you zoom out to other success stories, such as Barry Trotz’s fantastic work with the New York Islanders.

With Joel Quenneville readying his sunscreen for Florida, Alain Vigneault leading a band of former head coaches in Philly, and Todd McLellan landing his second California gig with the Los Angeles Kings, you’d think that the game of musical chairs that is coaching hiring would be mostly done for the NHL, but that’s not really so. As of Tuesday, the Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, and Ottawa Senators are still looking for new head coaches.

Let’s take a look at the decisions these four teams face, from a broader look at what type of coach they should look for, to a more concrete set of targets they should prioritize.

Anaheim Ducks should seek: An innovator

GM Bob Murray needs to face reality: “old-school” just isn’t working so well for the Ducks any longer.

This team ignored warning signs that Randy Carlyle’s work was behind the times, and those warts really sprouted up during a pretty disastrous 2018-19 season. If you look at the Ducks’ salary structure, you’ll see some troublingly aging core players like Ryan Getzlaf and the injured Ryan Kesler (both 34) and Corey Perry (33).

We’ve seen teams face a slump where they miss the playoffs before getting back on track, though, and there’s a chance the Ducks could join that group if thing swing back in their favor.

That’s especially true if John Gibson remains an all-world goaltender. Combine Gibson with a still-solid group of defensemen and decent forwards (Getzlaf’s getting old, but he can still move the needle), and maybe the Ducks’ outlook can go sunnier quickly.

Ducks targets:

  • Dallas Eakins – The breath of fresh air Anaheim needs could be right with the AHL’s affiliate, as Eakins seems forward-thinking when it comes to resting players and analytics. He’s also had success basically everywhere he’s been … except Edmonton. Even there, it’s not as if he had a lot of time to fix all the leaks for the Oilers.
  • Todd Nelson – Another briefly-former-Oilers coach who’s had success basically everywhere else he’s been. Nelson’s both reasonably young and well-traveled, making him a worthy consideration for multiple teams, really.
  • Sheldon KeefeIn Elliotte Friedman’s latest edition of “31 Thoughts“, he reported that Keefe wouldn’t leave the Toronto Marlies, unless it was for a better situation. Maybe the young coach wouldn’t view the Ducks as an upgrade, although you rarely see perfect teams making coaching searches, right?

The Ducks could also go for an older coach if they believe that bench boss would drive immediate results in a way that a fresher face wouldn’t … but personally, I’d lean toward youngsters.

Sabres should find: Structure

For years, there’s been an uncomfortable question lingering for Buffalo: is this team underachieving, or is the talent simply not there?

Either way, the optics haven’t been great, as the Sabres have often looked rudderless. They’ve really struggled to find stability since the lengthy Lindy Ruff era ended, and it sure feels like Buffalo needs to find this year’s version of Barry Trotz: an experienced coach who can install systems that won’t collapse under the pressure of competition.

Sabres’ best target:

  • Dave Tippett – At 57, Tippett has already coached two teams (the Stars and Coyotes) for a combined 1,114 regular-season games and 74 playoff contests. His squads have been structurally sound, and Tippett often found ways to get the most out of limited Coyotes rosters. He won a Jack Adams Award in 2009-10, and while he hasn’t had a head coaching job since 2016-17, Tippett remains focused on the game.

There are other options, with Friedman reporting that another former Oilers coach Ralph Krueger possibly being the frontrunner but … frankly, I just really like the fit for Buffalo. Maybe Tippett wouldn’t view the Sabres the same way, though.

(UPDATE: The Sabres have decided to hire Ralph Krueger.)

Oilers need: An exorcist

Just kidding. Plus, you could argue the same for the Senators, and to an extent, the Sabres.

My impression is that the Oilers could use optimism and positive, forward energy as much as anything else. It says a lot about their organizational dysfunction that you can almost forget that they have Connor McDavid, as well as some other key pieces.

Yes, the roster has issues, but maybe a more offensive-minded coach could get things going in a more modern direction, rather than trying to squeeze every drop of defensive potential out of this mix, as both Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan generally aimed to do? Considering how grim the atmosphere seemed to be, these players may benefit from a pat on the back after being barked at for some time.

Oilers’ options:

  • Sheldon Keefe – Would Keefe value having McDavid and Leon Draisaitl enough to risk leaving the Marlies for the Oilers? If so, what better way for Edmonton to show that its not some “old boys club” than to hire such a young head coach?
  • Todd Nelson– Ken Holland observed Nelson’s success with the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate for years, so maybe that would inspire Holland to allow Nelson to get another, more “real” shot with Edmonton this time around?
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – I’d be surprised if the Oilers went bold with Keefe or either of these two NCAA coaches, but I also think they’re worth mentioning. Rather than going for a retread in the form of a former head coach (who’s had more legitimate chances than a Nelson or an Eakins), why not see if one of these coaches has a higher ceiling?

Tippett seems to be a rising choice for Edmonton, and the Oilers could certainly go in worse directions. It feels a bit more of the same, though, as bringing in Hitchcock. Maybe Nelson would be the best compromise between bringing in fresher ideas and appeasing … well, that old boys club?

Senators should look for: An optimist … and a stopgap

In the above cases, teams are hoping to finally take big steps forward, or in the case of the Ducks, to reverse a downward spiral.

Honestly, the Ottawa Senators are better off tanking in 2019-20, and probably for a year or two beyond that. They purged a ton of talent by trading away Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, and others in recent seasons, and it’s tough to imagine overachieving doing much for the team’s bigger picture outlook beyond messing up their draft lottery odds.

With how dark things have been for the Senators, they could use a positive presence, preferably a coach who’s patient enough to help develop the Brady Tkachuks of the world. Put some smiles on some faces … just don’t win too much.

Ottawa’s options:

  • Marc Crawford – Becoming something of a coaching journeyman’s likely given Crawford some perspective. He served as interim head coach, so he already has some knowledge of the players and franchise, which can’t be underrated when you consider how … polarizing owner Eugene Melnyk can be.
  • Troy Mann– Carries much of the appeal of Crawford, as he’s coached the Senators’ AHL affiliate. He’d probably be cheap as a first-time NHL head coach too, which is, erm, appealing to Melnyk.
  • Scott Sandelin/Nate Leaman – A more sensible scenario for an NCAA coach to take over. Expectations would be low, so Sandelin or Leaman would get some time to acclimate to the NHL. Theoretically, at least. Might be a tough sell for either one to leave successful programs to try to fix the Senators, though.
  • Lane Lambert – Plenty of experience (and potential?) as Barry Trotz’s assistant, and hey, if you’re going to be bad, at least distract yourself with his amusing hair. (Note: Sportsnet’s John Shannon reports that the Ducks have also shown interest in Lambert.)

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None of these situations feel like easy or obvious fixes, and the best options might not be listed above. Then again, things didn’t seem very optimistic for the Islanders when Trotz took over, or for Berube when the Blues were ranked last during this season, and those scenarios ended up being wild successes.

Who would you go after if you were running those teams?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Pettersson, Binnington, Dahlin are Calder Trophy finalists

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The NHL announced on Saturday the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, the award that is handed out annually to the league’s top rookie.

The finalists for the 2018-19 season are Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson, St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, and Buffalo Sabres defender Rasmus Dahlin, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft.

The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.

The NHL’s top rookie has been honored since 1936 when Frank Calder, president of the NHL, began purchasing a trophy that was to be handed out to the top rookie every year. Following Calder’s death in 1943 the league began presenting the Calder Trophy in his memory.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Pettersson: He was not only an impact player from the moment he arrived in the NHL, but also a constant highlight reel for the Canucks. He finished the regular season with the most goals (28) and points (66) among all rookies even though he missed 11 games due to injury. No other rookie in the NHL finished the season with more than 22 goals or 45 points. He was so far ahead of the pack offensively that the gap between him and the second-leading rookie scorer, Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk, was the same as the gap between Tkachuk and the 17th leading rookie scorer (Minnesota’s Jordan Greenway.) He also had multiple five-point games during the season, something only five other rookies have done during the expansion era of the NHL. This is the second year in a row the Canucks will have a Calder Trophy finalist after Brock Boeser was the runner-up this past season.

The case for Binnington: Simply put, Binnington was a season-saver for the Blues along with new coach Craig Berube. When he made his first NHL start on Jan. 7 the Blues had one of the worst records in the NHL, had an unsettled goaltending situation that had been sinking their team through the first half of the season, and seemed to be a team that was simply going nowhere. All Binnington did that night was stop all 25 shots he faced in a 3-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers and then never stopped winning. He finished the regular season with a 24-5-1 record and a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games, trailing only Ben Bishop, Robin Lehner, and Jack Campbell. That performance helped the Blues not only make the playoffs, but also make a late run at the Central Division title. He has continued that strong play into the postseason where he has helped lead the Blues to a Round 2 matchup with the Dallas Stars.

The case for Dahlin: The No. 1 overall pick in 2018, Dahlin stepped right into the Sabres lineup and immediately became one of their go-to defenders as an 18-year-old. He had a huge year that saw him play more than 20 minutes per game and finish with 44 points, third among all rookies. The truly impressive thing about that point total is that only one other defender in the history of the league had a higher total during their age 18 season. Phil Housley, Dahlin’s coach during his rookie season, had 66 points during the 1982-83 season. If Dahlin wins the award he would be only the 12th defender to win it, and only the third since 1998 (Barrett Jackman, Tyler Myers, and Aaron Ekblad).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Toews dazzles; Tkachuk hits 45

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Three stars

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Some thought he was petering out as an elite hockey player in the NHL. Few expected the type of season Toews is having.

Captain Serious scored his career-high 35th goal of the season and added the only goal that mattered in the shootout to push the Blackhawks past the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday Night Hockey. Toews now has a career high in goals and points and needs one assist to make it a career-high hat trick with helper No. 45.

A season for the haters.

2. Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators 

The Senators are playing for next year (or perhaps three years down the road), and Tkachuk is set to feature in Ottawa’s lineup for a long time, which is a good thing.

Tkachuk had a goal and an assist to given him 45 points in 69 games in his rookie season. It’s been a trying year in Ottawa on and off the ice, but Tkachuk has been a bright spot.

3. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Another goal (his 42nd) and another assist (his 65th) came off the stick of Kane in Chicago’s win.

Kane came into the game with 105 points, one shy of his career-best 106 that he set in 2015-16 when he won the Art Ross. He won’t win that award this season, Nikita Kucherov has that locked up, but Kane’s two points established a new career mark with 107.

Highlights of the night

This is tremendous:

This, too:

Getzlaf can still fake out defenders:

Kane’s sick mitts:

Factoids

Scores

Senators 4, Rangers 1
Blackhawks 4, Blues 3 (SO)
Ducks 3, Flames 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov making plenty of points for NHL’s MVP consideration

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Connor McDavid knows better than to risk making end-of-season NHL award projections.

Through no fault of his own, the Edmonton Oilers captain was not included among last year’s three MVP candidates, causing a stir back home. So McDavid understandably deferred when recently asked to list his Hart Trophy front-runners this year.

”After last year, I’m not commenting,” McDavid said, chuckling. ”I have no idea who will win it at all.”

McDavid, who won the Hart in 2017 after leading the Oilers to their first playoff berth in 11 years, isn’t likely to be included among this year’s finalists even though he entered the final week of the season second in the league with 115 points. Trouble is, the Oilers have already been eliminated from playoff contention, and McDavid and everyone else are being overshadowed by the numbers Nikita Kucherov is putting up with the President’s Trophy-clinching Tampa Bay Lightning.

With 125 points through 80 games, Kucherov has already matched Joe Thornton‘s league-leading total in 2005-06. The highest total after that is Jaromir Jagr’s 127 points in 1998-99, and the last player to top 130 points was Mario Lemieux, who had 161 in 1995-96.

”It’s not at all surprising. He was unbelievable last year, and seemed to get no recognition for it,” McDavid said, noting how Kucherov finished third in the NHL with 100 points last season. ”They’re a team that scores a lot of goals. And he’s in on most of them. It’s pretty impressive.”

Kucherov is tied for the Lightning lead with seven game-winning goals and part of a team that became only the NHL’s third to win 60 or more games. Kucherov has also led the points race since Dec. 28, and gone no more than two games without registering a point this season.

That’s not to say there aren’t others worthy of mention.

Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, with a career-best 97 points already, has played a key role in helping the Flames clinch their first division title in 13 years.

Though Sidney Crosby‘s production has tailed off with just three assists in Pittsburgh’s past nine games, the Penguins could have been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006 if not for their captain’s team-leading 95 points. Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who enjoyed a 20-game point streak, would deserve consideration if not for the Blackhawks sitting last in the Central Division.

Former NHL executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said it’s difficult to consider anyone ahead of Kucherov, suggesting he has essentially ”lapped the field.”

”You’d have to be statistically such an aberration, such a unicorn, that voters would have no choice but to say, ‘OK, that’s the guy,”’ Burke said.

”But that’s not the case where you’ve got Kucherov. So there’s no unicorns,” Burke added. ”You’ve already got a guy who’s blowing everyone away.”

That said, here is The Associated Press list of end-of-season award contenders:

HART (MVP)

In the conversation: Crosby, Gaudreau, Kucherov and Brad Marchand (Boston).

Who should win: Kucherov.

Comment: To quote Burke: ”There’s no unicorns.”

NORRIS (Top defenseman)

In the conversation: Brent Burns (San Jose), John Carlson (Washington), Mark Giordano (Calgary), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Giordano.

Comment: A career-best season for a captain on the Pacific Division’s top team.

VEZINA (Top goalie)

In the conversation: Ben Bishop (Dallas), Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), Carey Price (Montreal) Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Vasilevskiy.

Comment: Tightest race to call and could include Islanders’ tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, though each eliminate each other by splitting starts.

SELKE (Top defensive forward)

In the conversation: Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Patrice Bergeron (Boston), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia), Mark Stone (Vegas), Ryan O'Reilly (St. Louis).

Who should win: Stone.

Comment: Before being traded to Vegas, Stone had an exceptional plus-13 rating on a Senators team that has currently allowed an NHL-worst 285 goals.

CALDER (Top rookie)

In the conversation: Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo), Andreas Johnsson (Toronto), Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa).

Who should win: Pettersson.

Comment: Pettersson leads rookie forwards in averaging 18:20 of ice time per game.

JACK ADAMS (Top coach)

In the conversation: Craig Berube (St. Louis), Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay), Bill Peters (Calgary), Barry Trotz (Islanders).

Who should win: Cooper.

Comment: Though Berube and Trotz deserve consideration, it is difficult to overlook the job Cooper’s done with a 60-win team.

THEY SAID IT

Blue Jackets John Tortorella wasn’t initially in the mood to divulge what was discussed during a team meeting after a 4-1 loss at Edmonton on March 21 that extended Columbus’ skid to 0-2-1.

”That’s none of your business,” he responded. Pressed further, given how Columbus rebounded to win its next five, Tortorella said: ”We (stunk) against Edmonton. I mean it was pitiful against Edmonton, so we tried to clean some things up.”