D.J. Smith checks a lot of boxes in the Sabres coaching search

Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith is an intriguing name in the Sabres head coaching search

The Buffalo Sabres coaching search has hit a lull over the last week or so. Right out of the gate we had the rumors connecting Todd McLellan to the club as potentially the next head coach. When all was said and done he ended up accepting the job for the Los Angeles Kings after meeting with Sabres management.

After McLellan, the other popular veteran coach on the market, Alain Vigneault, was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers. His name was never officially tied to the Sabres outside of the World Championship Team Canada connection.

Botterill it appears to have decided to take the patient approach. It’s likely he may want to talk to some coaches that are still coaching in the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup playoffs. One such name could be Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith. He was even mentioned as a possible candidate by TSN’s Bob McKenzie on his recent ‘Bobcast’ episode.

Smith is a good mix of a coach that has experience in the NHL, head coaching experience, and an innovative mind. The 41-year-old has been on Mike Babcock’s staff in Toronto since 2015. He’s been responsible for handling the Leafs defense side of the bench as well as the penalty kill.

Since Smith has been behind the Leafs bench their penalty kill has been ranked 13, 10, 11, and 17. He’s been an important part of developing promising young blueliners on that team like Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott.

Luke Fox wrote a really nice piece on Smith last year for Sportsnet that gives you a good insight into how he’s thought of. You can read that here.

In that article Leafs defenseman Rielly had a quote that stuck out to me:

“He lets you be young when you’re young, lets you make mistakes. But the more you get to know him, the older you get, the more responsibility he gives you. I think that’s important.”

Smith is known as a players coach that is well-respected and has good communication with his players. That quote from Rielly appears to confirm that reputation and could be a good approach with a player on the Sabres like Rasmus Dahlin. He had some other nice things to say about Smith in that piece, as did Babcock.

If you remember after Phil Housley was fired, general manager Jason Botterill indicated he’s looking for a coach that can be a good communicator with his young players on the roster.

He also checks the box in terms of coaching experience that Botterill is looking for in this search. While it may not be head coaching experience in the NHL, Smith, has a past of success as the lead guy in the OHL. He led the Oshawa Generals to the playoffs all three years behind the bench with that team. In his final season before joining the Leafs, he won the Memorial Cup and was named the OHL Coach of the Year.

For reference, Housley’s only head coaching experience was with the 2013 World Junior, in which he led Team USA to a gold medal.

Smith seems like an ideal candidate for the Sabres. He checks some important boxes in what they should be looking for in their 19th head coach in team history. Smith has also spent a few years learning under one of the best coaches in the league and around a team that spent a lot of time winning over those years.

The Leafs jumped out to a 3-2 series lead over the Boston Bruins last night, so it may be some time before Botterill gets his chance to talk to Smith if that is his intention.