Standing amid a crowd in the Washington Capitals dressing room, Devante Smith-Pelly flashed the gap-toothed smile that has become more recognizable with every passing playoff game. Here he was, owner of six playoff goals and scores in back-to-back games, helping to put his team just one victory from winning the Stanley Cup. With the Cup so close, this is no time to be thinking about a contract. But he did have to acknowledge that he has set himself up quite nicely, no?
“Um, I’m not thinking about that at all right now,” he said with a smile. “You know…I’m not thinking about that.”
Spoiler alert. He probably actually is. Not as much as he’s thinking about how great it would be to win the Stanley Cup as early as Thursday night, but it is definitely on his mind, as it would be with any player. When you come into a season hanging on a thread as much as Smith-Pelly did in 2017-18, having this kind of playoff run tends to put a guy’s mind at ease.
Pelly-Smith faces restricted free agency this summer and he has arbitration rights, which makes things a little interesting. To be sure he has earned a raise on the two-way contract that paid him just $650,000 this year. But unlike last September, Smith-Pelly will almost certainly go into camp with a contract and probably a multi-year deal. That’s a far cry from last September when he came to the Capitals as a walk-on on the advice of Brett Connolly and Tom Wilson, who said the cap-strapped team was looking for some bottom-six earners. Smith-Pelly saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
“Same thing happened to (Connolly) the year before,” Smith-Pelly said. “They kind of took a chance on him and it worked out for him. I knew coming in that you only get so many chances to stick and I knew this could be my last one.”
Smith-Pelly came to the Capitals having been bought out by the New Jersey Devils, to the tune of $225,000 this past season and next season. He came to the Capitals with no promises, no guarantees and earned a two-way deal which would have paid him $325,000 had he played in the minors. But he also rededicated himself to his career. On the ice, he worked with skills coach and Hall of Famer Adam Oates. Off the ice, he trained all summer with renowned NHL trainer Matt Nichol. He even changed the pattern of his stick, adopting the exact one used by T.J. Oshie, which was pilfered from Alex Ovechkin.
He has played on all four lines with the Capitals this season with varying degrees of success. With six goals in the playoffs, he is one short of the total he scored in the entire regular season. More importantly, he has provided the Capitals with a combination of size, speed and skill that has been hard to stop. The puck seems to be finding him these days – no more so than when he took an Andre Burakovsky shot to the beak during the morning skate before Game 4 – and he has displayed a nice touch in tight. Playing on the right side of a productive fourth line with Jay Beagle at center and Chandler Stephenson on the left side, ‘DSP’ is contributing far more than just PIM.
In training camp, Trotz said he talked to Smith-Pelly about “building his brand,” but more about playing a consistent style. “As a coach, you want to know what you’re getting all the time,” Trotz said of Smith-Pelly. “And you have to know your strengths and weaknesses and let’s play to your strengths. In the past he’s had some consistency issues. I have a lot of faith in him and he’s learned that he’s got my trust as a coach-player relationship and he’s done a really good job.”
There’s actually not a lot of mystery to it. Trotz made it very clear Smith-Pelly what was expected of him every night and he appreciated the direct communication with the coach. Those lines of communication stayed open all season and Trotz was sure to continue to reiterate what the expectations were for him. Using his speed to get in on the forecheck, then using his size and strength to play hard on the puck were constant messages.
“I think most what he wanted from me was just to be consistent,” Smith-Pelly said. “Kind of the knock on me is one good game, a couple of bad ones and up-and-down, up-and-down.”
Those messages got through and have been taken to heart. And we’re seeing the results. Aside from pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny, who might turn out to be the best trade deadline acquisition in the NHL this season, no player stands to gain as much in terms of money and term from a Stanley Cup this spring. But there’s lots of time for that later.
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