RALEIGH, N.C. — It’d be fair to say Capitals Coach Barry Trotz had low expectations when he learned that the organization had signed Devante Smith-Pelly this summer.
“I wasn’t sure on him, to be honest with you,” Trotz said. “Just because of not seeing him enough and not knowing him, I knew there was something there, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t a big fan.”
It didn’t take long for Trotz’s perception of Smith-Pelly to change, and from the very first game, when a turnover was quickly forgiven by the coach, Smith-Pelly has felt at ease with Washington because he has sensed trust from Trotz. A low-risk, inexpensive depth signing has paid dividends for both parties. After a miserable 2016-17 season, Smith-Pelly has rejuvenated his career, and the Capitals got a versatile forward who has now played everywhere from the top line to the fourth.
“As you got to know him and you got to see what he can do, I’m a fan,” Trotz said.
“I think the coach is just allowing me to play,” Smith-Pelly said. ” . . . When you get confidence like that from the head coach, you don’t grip your stick as tight, and you just do what you can do. I think that’s been huge for me, the coaching staff allowing me just to play.”
Smith-Pelly’s goal in Tuesday night’s 5-4 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes gives him six on the season, two more than he scored in 53 games with the New Jersey Devils last year. And with 13 points at the midpoint of the season, he’s on pace for a career-high. Considering the Capitals bought low on Smith-Pelly, signing the 25-year-old just days after his contract was bought out, his two-way deal for the NHL minimum $650,000 is a bargain, an underrated move during Washington’s tough summer.
He and Alex Chiasson, who earned a one-year deal off a professional tryout at training camp, have steadily chipped in to help the Capitals replace some of the production lost with the departures of top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams. Both scored against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, and for two unheralded offseason additions, both Smith-Pelly and Chiasson have taken on considerable roles for Washington. Chiasson has had opportunities on the power play and in the top-six forward corps, and he has established a role on the team’s top penalty-killing unit with Jay Beagle.
For a second stint this season, Smith-Pelly has played his way onto Alex Ovechkin’s line. When the roster got healthy and T.J. Oshie returned to the lineup, Smith-Pelly was the forward pushed out, a healthy scratch for the first time all season through no real fault of his own. But after missing two games, he played well when he got back in. And as the Capitals endured a scoring drought last week, Trotz promoted Smith-Pelly as a spark.
“You obviously want to play every game,” Smith-Pelly said. “I thought I was playing well before. It’s just at that point, it was just something they wanted to do. So, I mean, of course it’s a little extra motivation just to continue playing well and kind of show some sort of an element that the coaching staff doesn’t want to take out when they have to decide who to take out. I tried to do that before I got taken out, and I’m just trying to continue to do it.”
Smith-Pelly has a goal and a primary assist in his past two games, and although he didn’t pick up a point, he was on the ice for Ovechkin’s game-tying goal in the third period. In just the past two games, he has nine shots on goal, making him a safe bet to stay put on the Capitals’ top line.
“Obviously, he came back into the lineup, and I moved him up pretty quick,” Trotz said. “He’s making a statement, like, ‘I’m not going to be out again, I’m going to make sure my play stands alone and makes your decisions really tough.’ But the things that Devo can do when he’s playing the way he’s capable of playing, he really can skate. He’s deceptive in how fast he can get down the ice. He’s got sort of a heavy shot. He can make pretty good plays. . . .
“There’s growth in his game, and it may not be as much on the physical side, but I think just on the mental side, knowing that he can play at a high level every night and compete at a high level and be productive. That’s the part that we’re — I’m trying, anyway, with him — to get him better. And I think he has been getting better there.”
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