D.J. Smith has let his mind wander, if ever so slightly.
Coming off his first season as an NHL head coach – one cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic — the Ottawa Senators’ bench boss has already turned most of his attention to the 2020-21 campaign, whenever it gets off the ground.
Before that, however, Smith will also be watching with keen interest where the balls bounce at the NHL draft lottery on June 26.
Ottawa, which has gone through a well-documented period of on- and off-ice turmoil since getting within a double-overtime goal of making the 2017 Stanley Cup final, owns the second- and third-best odds.
The Senators ranked 30th out of 31 teams when the league paused its season because of the novel coronavirus pandemic March 12, but also possesses the Sharks’ first-round selection after dealing captain and star defenceman Erik Karlsson to San Jose in September 2018.
Detroit has the best singular odds of drafting first at 18.5 per cent, but Ottawa’s chances sit at a combined 25 per cent.
In a perfect world from a Senators’ perspective, they would pick first and second, and take winger Alexis Lafreniere followed by centre Quinton Byfield.
Other combinations are much more likely — hockey Twitter account IneffectiveMath recently calculated Ottawa’s best chances are picking No. 4 and No. 5 — but Smith is really hoping at least one selection falls in the first three.
“They’re saying anyone in the top-3 would be a No. 1 in most other years,” the coach said in a phone interview this week. “If you end up with one of them great, you’re up and running. If you end up with two of the top-3, they’re game-changers.”
The worst case scenario for Ottawa would be picking fifth or sixth, still pretty good in a deep draft class.
Smith, however, points to the Vancouver Canucks getting Daniel and Henrik at No. 2 and No. 3 in 1999 to illustrate what this lottery could mean in the nation’s capital.
“They changed that franchise,” he said.
Ottawa also owns the New York Islanders’ first-round pick — as long as it doesn’t fall in the top-3 — and four selections in the second to go along with defenceman Thomas Chabot, winger Brady Tkachuk, centre Colin White and a host of other prospects knocking on the door.
And while Smith knows there will likely be growing pains with the youngsters the Senators get in a draft that doesn’t yet have a firm date, he’s excited at the prospect of securing some top-end talent up front.
“When you can get a couple game-changers on your team, you find ways to win,” Smith said. “Those guys have another gear. There’s a reason they’re rated one, two or three. They do things other people can’t do. If you can get one of those guys, great.
“If you can get two, that makes you a heck of a coach.”
When he isn’t dreaming about the draft possibilities, Smith has had plenty of time to look back on his first year as an NHL head coach. He’s examined what worked, what didn’t and where he can improve heading into Year 2.
“You’ve got to judge yourself on what other people say about your team, and I think they would say how hard we worked,” Smith said. “We played 71 games, and I’d say we either matched or outworked the other team in 68 of them.”
He also readily admits there’s room to grow.
“There was a couple times probably I got a little too emotional after a game,” Smith added. “The biggest thing is to be more calm in tough situations.
“You learn over time you just have to turn the page. I think I’m good at turning the page the next day. Just right after the game, sometimes you gotta you got to calm yourself down.”
An assistant for Mike Babcock in Toronto for four seasons, Smith said his biggest takeaway was preparation and attention to detail.
“He knows how he wants his team to play,” Smith said of Babcock. “He’s super organized, his practices are fast. His teams are ready to play.”
Smith added he’s spoken to Babcock a few times since his firing by the Maple Leafs in November, and that his former boss is hungry to get back in the game.
“For sure,” Smith said. “He’s a competitive guy and he wants to win. He wants to win another Stanley Cup.
“I believe he’s gonna get his chance again.”
Heading into his second year with Ottawa, Smith knows the roster has to take a step. Development was a focus this season, but results need to follow.
It’s also tough to know when the Senators will be back on the ice. The NHL is hoping its return-to-play format sees the 2019-20 season resume this summer, but the seven teams on the outside looking might not play a meaningful game until January.
“We now have to get better in our structure,” Smith said. “But within the next little bit here, our team’s going to be as competitive as anyone. We’re going to be ready to rock.
“There’s just too many good young players. Ottawa’s going to be a team to deal with in the future.”