In a long-talked-about move, on Thursday the Leafs and assistant coach D.J. Smith parted ways, as he took the vacant head job in Ottawa. I say they “parted ways” instead of him being poached because it was unclear, and perhaps unlikely, that he was ever coming back with Toronto beyond this season anyway.
Much has been said about the Leafs’ coaching situation since their first-round exit a few weeks ago, but after Kyle Dubas gave Mike Babcock the full vote of confidence going into next season, the focus quickly shifted to the assistants potentially being replaced. Smith’s name had been in the rumour mill for Ottawa’s job since the late part of the regular season, so to see him move on was not surprising and it’s tough to say whether the Leafs ever really cared. They obviously didn’t bother to try and stop it.
What’s a bit more surprising, and perhaps a little strange, however, is the way things are playing out for the Leafs’ other assistant, Jim Hiller, who most would have argued to be a far bigger loss than Smith. In the case of Smith, who was supposedly in charge of the penalty kill and defence corps, I’d think a lot of the fanbase probably wasn’t sad to see him go since those two areas of the team weren’t exactly strengths – especially in the playoffs where the PK utterly cratered two years in a row. [Though to be fair to Smith, I think personnel was a bit of a problem too. But we won’t get into that here.]
Either way, Hiller’s case is entirely different, from his performance with the Leafs to what doors are open for him now. During his time in Toronto he’s been in charge of running the powerplay and simply generating as much offence as possible – that’s his whole thing. But Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet has reported for weeks now that Hiller just “isn’t coming back” with the Leafs. We’re never really told if he’s being fired, or what exactly is better elsewhere if he isn’t. In the most recent 31 Thoughts podcast, it’s said that his two most likely destinations are Nashville and Arizona. That makes sense, since those two teams have a particularly tough time converting on the powerplay, but this obviously isn’t a promotion. Hiller would just go somewhere else to do the same thing he’s done for the last four years in Toronto. Is it a money problem? That seems almost impossible. If the Leafs wanted to keep a coach, they can outbid any team for them easily. [See: Sheldon Keefe being paid like an NHL coach to run an AHL team.]
Pushing this whole thing further to its conclusion is what happened yesterday. When it was announced Smith was leaving, the Leafs finally let the world know that they were hiring Paul McFarland as a new assistant – something that had been agreed to for weeks apparently. Thing is, McFarland isn’t replacing Smith, he’s replacing Hiller as the new powerplay mind. So Hiller is definitely leaving, it’s just sort of puzzling why since the Leafs haven’t outright canned him to this point.
When Babcock was hired he had this to say about bringing Hiller aboard.
Went back to look for articles about the Leafs hiring assistants last time because I thought Knoblauch and Boucher were considered. Didn’t find that but this clip of Babs talking about Hiller was cool. pic.twitter.com/Nneg0VHCnR
— Ryan (@ryanfancey) May 8, 2019
The only thing I can think is that Nashville and Arizona expressed interest in Hiller and are offering him a bit more money than what the Leafs currently pay him. Toronto, in this case Dubas and Babcock, likely decided “hey, we could use a shake-up anyway, so this works out fine for us”.
I mean, while the Leafs’ top powerplay unit was loaded with talent and able to direct a lot of dangerous looks at the net all year, they didn’t convert at the rate we thought they could when they were blowing teams away early in the season. And it really did seem like they were slow to adjust when teams matched them tough – it felt as though a month elapsed before Toronto abandoned going exclusively cross-ice from Marner to Matthews once teams caught on to it and defended it well. Perhaps the Leafs just felt things were stale enough to let Hiller move on without a fight. In fact it’s most likely that McFarland being let go in Florida when Quenneville arrived solidified this as the Leafs had their eye on him for a while.
Basically what we’re looking at is a perfect opportunity to split for both sides. The Leafs did well with Hiller running things on the offensive side of the puck, but weren’t passionate about bringing him back, especially with a more interesting name out there that they could bring in right away. With teams like the Predators desperate to get scoring more, Hiller’s moving on, while lateral, just ended up timing perfectly. Still, it’s not often things work out this way, especially with no real promotion involved.