On June 30, Devante Smith-Pelly got a call he never expected from the New Jersey Devils. The team informed the 25-year-old forward he would be placed on unconditional waivers that afternoon to be bought out from his contract, ending a frustrating chapter in Smith-Pelly’s career.
The next day, Smith-Pelly became an unrestricted free agent and, two days after that, the Washington Capitals signed him to a two-way deal. Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan sees him as a “project,” a low-risk signing that could have some reward if Smith-Pelly makes the team. He likes Smith Pelly’s raw ability, but “I don’t think that the consistency has been there with him, and the conditioning level or the work ethic have been a little inconsistent,” MacLellan said.
Smith-Pelly would disagree with that assessment, and he is hopeful this opportunity will show he still belongs in the NHL. His explanation for why his production plummeted to four goals and five assists in 53 games last season is pinned to a nagging knee injury he said he told the Devils about in October. Rather than undergo a medical procedure at the start of the season, he was in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch as his play suffered. Smith-Pelly then missed the last 15 games of the season after he had a procedure on his knee.
“If I’m being completely honest, I played the whole year hurt,” Smith-Pelly said. “They knew that. I don’t want to say I was forced to play, but in October I told them, ‘Maybe we should figure this out,’ and then I missed the last  games with the same thing. … Everyone saw what happened when I was healthy and playing.”
After Montreal traded Smith-Pelly to New Jersey near the end of the 2015-16 season, he went on a scoring tear with eight goals and five assists in 18 games. But he came into last season with the injured knee, and it “got worse and worse and worse to a point where I almost couldn’t move,” he said. Smith-Pelly declined to reveal details about the injury or the procedure he had to repair it, but he said he is healthy now.
“I missed the last 15 games after that procedure, so it’s something that we should have probably dealt with earlier,” Smith-Pelly said. “I won’t get into specifics, but I need my leg to skate.”
Between the down year and the buyout by the Devils, Smith-Pelly entered the summer especially motivated. He works out at BioSteel Sports in Toronto with a group of NHLers that includes Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Just a few years apart in age, the two moved up the Canadian youth ranks together, and Wilson said Smith-Pelly now looks the best he has ever seen him.
“It’s no secret that’s a bit of a wake-up call for any player around the league,” Wilson said. “If you’re bought out and the team says they don’t want you, that’s going to piss you off. It’s going to make you hungry and bring that motivation back. You spend years in the league, and all of a sudden your team just buys you out. He’s done an amazing job; I’ve watched him all summer, and he’s worked really hard. He’s come into this camp, and I think he wants to show the Caps that he’s meant to be here.”
Said MacLellan: “You get only so many kicks at the can and, when a new organization takes an interest in you, I think you perk up and try to prove them right.”
Though Smith-Pelly is waiver eligible and could get swiped if the Capitals try to send him down to the American Hockey League, he is not guaranteed to find himself in Washington when training camp is over. He is competing with young forward prospects such as Nathan Walker, Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd, and they’ve all waited for this opportunity within the organization.
On Tuesday afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz skated over to Smith-Pelly and told him the practice session had been his best yet — a little encouragement for a veteran with promise.
“I think I’ve shown anywhere I go, playing in that role consistently, playing in any role consistently, I do what I’ve got to do,” Smith-Pelly said. “Playing in a scoring role [in New Jersey] and in Anaheim, it’s there. I think I can play on the fourth line, I can play third line, anything. Playing on a consistent line with a consistent role is something I can do. I did that in Jersey and, the next year, I didn’t play with [Devils center Adam] Henrique at all. So, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, I’m playing center; I’m playing left wing,’ and it’s tough to get traction. So I think just given a consistent role — just ‘this is what you’re supposed to do; just do it’ — makes me successful.”
Smith-Pelly scored the game-winning goal in the Capitals’ 4-2 win against the Canadiens in Montreal. Washington’s first two goals came on the power play, first from Evgeny Kuznetsov and then Jakub Vrana, and Tom Wilson scored an empty-netter at the end to seal it.
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