From the first game of the season, forward Devante Smith-Pelly knew he could find comfort playing for the Capitals. He committed a turnover that led to an Ottawa goal in Washington’s Oct. 5 shootout win, and as Smith-Pelly skated to the bench, he was already fretting the mistake.
But Coach Barry Trotz didn’t yell. He didn’t cut his playing time, either.
“At that point in years past, that would be the knife for me,” Smith-Pelly said. “But [Trotz] said: ‘Don’t worry about it. That stuff happens.’ ”
The Capitals are Smith-Pelly’s third team in three seasons, but a mutual trust with the coaching staff and camaraderie with his teammates makes the forward feel he’s poised to fortify his place in the lineup against his first NHL team, the Anaheim Ducks, in Capital One Arena on Saturday night.
“I knew that he played on the fourth, the third lines and that he was that style of player. But when we came here, I was like, ‘This guy’s got more,’ ” Capitals center Jay Beagle said. “He’s been given the chance, and he’s got tons of skill and he’s smart with the puck. He can play up and down in any line. He can play a fourth-line role, but he also can play that first- and second-line role, and he plays it really well.”
Trotz said after practice Friday that right wing T.J. Oshie wouldn’t return against the Ducks from the upper-body injury that has kept him out for the past five games, but the coach knows he has a decision looming. When Oshie returns, Smith-Pelly is one of the candidates to be scratched from the lineup. He most recently has played on the fourth line with Beagle and Chandler Stephenson.
“That’s for the coach to decide,” Smith-Pelly said sitting at his locker Friday. “I’m just doing my job every night: blocking shots, playing physical and putting up points. That’s what I’ve been asked to do, and I think I’ve been doing it pretty well.”
Smith-Pelly feels his improved production, along with what Trotz said is a valuable role in wearing down opponents with his 6-foot, 223-pound frame, has spoken for itself.
After the Montreal Canadiens traded him to the New Jersey Devils late in the 2015-16 season, Smith-Pelly made a splash with eight goals and five assists in 18 games. But a lingering knee injury hampered his production last season, when he tallied nine points in 53 games and finished on injured reserve. The Devils bought out his contract over the summer, and he signed with the Capitals a few days later.
Smith-Pelly has embraced his relationship with Trotz — the two have had meetings throughout the season — and he has five goals and six assists through 33 games, already eclipsing his point total from last season.
He earned time with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the first line in 12 games earlier this season. And he has found chemistry in collaborating with Beagle and Stephenson on the fourth line as the Capitals have found a rhythm in winning nine of their past 11 games.
“Their line has a little bit of offense, but they can grind you out pretty good, too,” Trotz said. “I’ve been using them more and more as the lines have settled in a little bit, and they’ve got some pretty good responsibility on the ice now, and what it’s done is evened out our ice time.”
Smith-Pelly also has gotten a taste of the city, recently visiting the Newseum and making a mental list of museums and art galleries he wants to visit during future downtime.
For now, the 25-year-old is focused on squaring off Saturday against some his former teammates from Anaheim, where he played from 2011-12 until he was traded to the Canadiens before the 2015 deadline.
“I definitely think about that as one of the better times in my hockey career,” Smith-Pelly said. “I had a lot of fun in Anaheim, and I’m looking forward to seeing the guys and playing against them.”
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