The Washington Capitals play their fourth exhibition game Friday night, and including the roster traveling to Carolina for that contest, nearly every returning player from last season’s Stanley Cup-winning team has gotten into at least one preseason game during this first week of training camp. The two exceptions: defenseman John Carlson, who missed the first three days of camp with a lower-body injury and is still working his way back to full speed, and forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who Coach Todd Reirden said is “still trying to get to the level where he was at last year.”
“Until he does, it doesn’t do us any good as a team or for him to be playing in games,” Reirden told reporters Friday. “He’s working really hard to get back to that spot, and he’s close, but until he’s at that spot, he won’t be in the lineup because I don’t feel that’s setting a player up for success at all. But we’re hoping that’s in the next little bit here.”
Reirden was asked whether Smith-Pelly is nursing an injury, or if it’s a conditioning issue keeping him out of the lineup.
“It’s something that I think we’ll just keep in house in terms of with the specific player,” he said. “Like I said, he’s not at the level that he was at last year, and that to me is really all there is to say about it. Once he gets there, he’ll be in and he’ll be helping us.”
Smith-Pelly was a breakout star for the Capitals during their championship run; after he scored seven goals in 75 games during the regular season, he had seven goals in 24 playoffs games and became a fan favorite. Washington re-signed the 26-year-old right wing to a one-year, $1 million deal this past summer, and he’s expected to again play on the fourth line. Smith-Pelly has seemingly been a full participant in practices during training camp, and when asked whether he’s injured, he said, “Right now, no.” He downplayed his not appearing in a preseason game yet.
“It was a short summer,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to make any excuse or anything, but a short summer, a little different. . . . I don’t think it’s really a story. I don’t think it’s really a thing. I think Todd would probably tell you the same thing. It’s not really a big deal. I’m doing what I have to do to be ready for when it really matters.”
Smith-Pelly’s contract was bought out by the New Jersey Devils after the 2016-17 season, and Washington signed him to a one-year, two-way contract. “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,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said going into training camp a year ago. Smith-Pelly disagreed with that assessment at the time, and he said a knee injury had nagged him all of that last season with the Devils. Just last week, the Tampa Bay Lightning terminated the contract of defenseman Jake Dotchin over conditioning issues.
Smith-Pelly said he expects to be ready for the season opener Oct. 3.
“These games don’t count points,” he said. “When the time [comes when] they count, that’s when I’m trying to be ready for.”