He found a fresh start with the Capitals, who gave him another chance with a one-year contract and didn’t know exactly what kind of production they would receive in return. Smith-Pelly has had an awakening of sorts — he’s added a dimension with his physicality and has enjoyed his best offensive season since 2015-16 — giving Washington an unexpected bargain as it prepares to meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday.
Returning to the postseason, and specifically the form he showed as a 21-year-old with the Ducks during the 2014 playoffs, was not lost on Smith-Pelly as he came off the ice with his Washington teammates Monday morning. He hasn’t been on this stage in three years, when he played in 12 games during the 2015 playoffs with the Canadiens.
“It was a good experience. Obviously, I’ve played in a lot of playoff games so I know what to expect to be successful. Really, I’m just going to play the way I’ve been playing,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s just magnified more, finishing checks, going to the net, making it hard on the other team.”
Smith-Pelly’s two-way deal with Washington last summer went for the league minimum of $650,000, a low-risk move that has paid dividends. The 25-year-old has been durable, playing in a career-high 75 games during the regular season. He finished with seven goals and nine assists, his best output in three years. And he’s been versatile piece on a team that has shifted personnel late in the season, a departure from past Capitals lineups that were essentially set before the playoffs began.
He has earned confidence from Washington Coach Barry Trotz, who has used Smith-Pelly to both plug injury holes and as a spark plug. Smith-Pelly has also shown shades of his younger potential, playing his way on to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin multiple times.
“Everywhere I’ve gone, that’s kind of been my thing, jumping up lines,” Smith-Pelly said. “At this point I’m used to it; it’s been happening my whole career. I like it.”
Trotz has experimented with Smith-Pelly in different spots, but he appears to have found chemistry on the third line alongside Lars Eller, who is having a career year. Both Smith-Pelly and Eller can separate the defense from the puck and give Washington capable secondary scoring, one of the team’s keys in the postseason. Trotz has not committed to playing Smith-Pelly and Eller on the same line to begin the playoffs Thursday night.
Although Smith-Pelly has been skating alongside Eller for the last six games of the regular season, he hasn’t scored since Feb. 11. He’s had plenty of scoring opportunities, something that alongside his physicality has kept him on the line with Eller and makes him a natural fit to skate against a physical team such as Columbus.
“He brings a good two-way game. I think he gets on the forecheck really well. He’s a guy that has had a lot of opportunities; he’s rang a couple off the post. He skates really well,” Trotz said. “I just think he’s a good all-around player. I think he’s a playoff type of guy for us.”
If Smith-Pelly learned anything from those 24 postseason games, it was finishing checks and using his 220-pound frame to help wear opponents down. He wants to be a player Trotz can plug in anywhere. Even as his career has taken an unexpected route, that skill-set has not been lost.
“I like that if something happens, being able to jump up or jump down and fill in,” Smith-Pelly said. “Being able to do anything is something I really take pride in.”