The Washington Capitals did not qualify pending restricted free agent right wing Devante Smith-Pelly by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, meaning Smith-Pelly will become an unrestricted free agent July 1. The Capitals are expected to continue discussions with Smith-Pelly and could make a push to sign him in free agency, but he can also hear from other teams as part of this week’s “interview period” leading up to July 1 when free agents are eligible to sign.
Washington submitted qualifying offers for forwards Tom Wilson, Travis Boyd, Liam O’Brien, Riley Barber and defenseman Madison Bowey, so the team retains those players’ rights as they continue negotiating.
The move is a surprising one considering Smith-Pelly was one of the Capitals’ top players in their run to a Stanley Cup championship, scoring seven even-strength goals in 24 games to match his regular season total. He played mostly on the fourth line, but he was also occasionally used in a top-six role, temporarily promoted to the top line beside center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin when Wilson was suspended for three playoff games. Smith-Pelly’s strong postseason play could make him a coveted free agent.
His popularity in D.C. blossomed with his postseason heroics. The night the Capitals clinched the first Stanley Cup in franchise history — Smith-Pelly scored the game-tying goal in that Game 5 — fans in Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena chanted Ovechkin’s name, but then they chanted “D-S-P” for Smith-Pelly. When asked about Smith-Pelly’s future in Washington earlier this month, General Manager Brian MacLellan indicaed the team planned to retain him.
“I think he’s become a big part of the team,” MacLellan said. “He brings good energy, he’s a good teammate, he’s well-liked. I mean, you could tell teammates really migrate toward him and like him, and then the crowd also likes him. They’re chanting ‘D-S-P’ all of the time. So it’s been fun how he’s got everybody to embrace him and his personality.”
With Smith-Pelly a restricted free agent, the Capitals owned his rights and tendering a qualifying offer to maintain those is typically just a formality. Because Smith-Pelly made the league minimum salary of $650,000 last season, a qualifying offer would have been $715,000, which Smith-Pelly would have almost certainly rejected, as most restricted free agents do. But at 26 years old, Smith-Pelly is arbitration-eligible, and with Washington concerned over salary-cap constraints, the team seemingly feared he would have a strong case if negotiations went all the way to arbitration, in which a third-party mediator rules on either a one-year or two-year salary. Should the mediator award Smith-Pelly a larger salary than the Capitals are prepared to pay, the team would be stuck paying that amount, as the team cannot walk away from a contract under minimum figure. This season that figure is $4,222,941 million, according to CapFriendly, and it’s unlikely Smith-Pelly’s awarded salary would surpass that amount.
The Capitals cleared cap room over the weekend by shipping veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik (and his $5.5 million cap hit) to the Colorado Avalanche as part of a trade that also included goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Even after Washington re-signed defenseman John Carlson to a massive eight-year, $64 million contract Sunday night, the Capitals still have roughly $13.2 million left for seven players to fill out a 23-man roster. The team’s priorities include re-signing pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Michal Kempny and Wilson, but while Smith-Pelly was due a raise on the one-year, two-way contract he signed last summer, he still would have almost certainly gotten less than the two-year, $3 million deal forward Brett Connolly got a year ago. Connolly only received that deal after the Capitals chose not to tender him a qualifying offer, re-signing him instead.
Washington is Smith-Pelly’s fourth team in seven seasons — the New Jersey Devils bought out the final year of his contract last summer — and he quickly became a popular member of the locker room. His regular season production was mediocre; he scored seven goals with nine assists in 75 regular season games, averaging 12:21 of ice time as he also killed penalties. But he’s developed a reputation for rising to the postseason stage, scoring five goals in 12 games with Anaheim four years ago and then becoming one of Washington’s most clutch performers during this Stanley Cup run. Smith-Pelly called this season the “best year” of his life.
“On the ice and off the ice, I feel like this is the best situation I’ve been in,” Smith-Pelly said at the team’s locker-clean-out day two weeks ago.
During a February game in Chicago this past season, Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL, was in the penalty box when four fans shouted racist taunts at him. They were later ejected, and a Chicago Tribune columnist then suggested Blackhawks fans donate to a charity of Smith-Pelly’s choosing as a sort of civic apology. Smith-Pelly endeared himself to Washington fans even more when he directed the charity money to Fort Dupont Ice Arena, the only full-size indoor ice arena in the District and home to the Cannons, the oldest minority youth hockey program in North America.
When asked about his contract status earlier this month, Smith-Pelly said there was “no real rush,” seemingly optimistic he would be back next season to help the Capitals defend their Stanley Cup.
“I’ve played on a couple different teams obviously, and I think I fit in pretty well here,” Smith-Pelly said earlier this month. “Obviously, my No. 1 priority is to be back, but you never know what could happen. I feel like I found my spot here.”
Read more about the Capitals: