MISSISSAUGA, ONT - There is a distinct lack of star power at this year’s Memorial Cup, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s because it allows players such as Devante Smith-Pelly to step into the limelight for the first time in their careers.
That’s not to say, though, that this will be the last you hear of the 19-year-old Smith-Pelly. Judging by his play so far in this year’s Memorial Cup, he’ll not only develop into a fine NHL player, but you can bet he’ll be front and center on next year’s Canadian entry in the World Junior Championship.
The Anaheim Ducks have certainly taken notice. They drafted him 42nd overall in June and even though they signed him to a three-year, entry-level deal that will pay him a $90,000 signing bonus this year and another $90,000 next season, representatives were on hand at the Memorial Cup all week. One of GM Bob Murray, coach Randy Carlyle, assistant Mike Foligno and amateur scout Jim Sandlak were on hand for each game of the tournament and there’s little doubt they were impressed with what they saw.
With two goals in the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors 3-1 win over the Kootenay Ice in the tournament’s semifinal, Smith-Pelly enters the final against the Saint John Sea Dogs Sunday with three goals and six points in four games and a definite beat on MVP honors in the tournament.
(He did it in front of 5,329 fans at the Hershey Center in Mississauga, which has a seating capacity of 5,800 for hockey and a population base of 700,000. The fact there were substantial pockets of seats sitting empty tells us one of two things. Either the good people of Mississauga are the worst junior hockey fans on the planet or, as I suggested earlier this month, the tickets are priced ridiculously high. For the record, we’ll take Door No. 2.)
Smith-Pelly professes not to be concerned with the presence of the Ducks front office, but he certainly has picked an opportune time to impress his future employers. What’s most promising about Smith-Pelly is that his instincts around the net are superb.
“I’ve been playing pretty well, I guess, and the fact (the Ducks) have been here to witness it is pretty exciting,” Smith-Pelly said.
Smith-Pelly will likely never be an enormous offensive producer, either at the junior or NHL level, but he projects as a solid third-line player who's capable of scoring 15 goals a season. He’ll also provide energy in the form of big hits and the occasional fight and has the speed and smarts needed to fill a checking type of role.
The only problem with Smith-Pelly, and it’s not an enormous one, is consistency. That’s hardly an anomaly with young players who are still trying to figure out exactly what it takes to play in the NHL. Most of them think they are doing all the right things, but don’t have a clue until they get exposed to that level of competition and go against players for whom hockey is how they feed their families. For Smith-Pelly, there are nights where he looks like a superstar at the junior level and others where he looks non-existent. Then there are others where he makes no visible contribution to the scoresheet, but still makes a difference with his play. The key for Smith-Pelly is finding the balance.
“In junior you can take a couple games off and still kind of get away with things,” he said. “You can get points even if you’re not playing well and that can kind of trick you into thinking you’re playing well, but at the pro game you take a night off and it could cost your team the game and it could cost your team a season even. So to try to move to the next level, consistency is something I definitely have to work on.”
Luckily, Smith-Pelly has two very good role models in that regard in Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues and Wayne Simmonds of the Los Angeles Kings. Both have taken on a mentorship role with Smith-Pelly.
“We keep in touch pretty frequently and I’m pretty sure they were here (Friday) night,” Smith-Pelly said. “We talk a lot and they’re always giving me tips on what to do and how to handle myself and I appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”
Smith-Pelly can reward their faith with another strong performance in the Memorial Cup final. It still might not be enough to beat the rested and offensively gifted Sea Dogs, but there’s little doubt Smith-Pelly will leave it all on the ice Sunday night.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.