As the Capitals play their fifth preseason game in St. Louis on Tuesday night, winger Devante Smith-Pelly continues his curious absence from exhibition game lineups. Smith-Pelly told reporters that he isn’t injured and Coach Todd Reirden has been vague about why the forward has been held out of games — “He’s still trying to get to the level where he was at last year, and until he does, it doesn’t do us any good as a team or for him to be playing in games,” he said last week — hinting at a conditioning issue without actually saying that much.
“It’s something that I think we’ll just keep in house in terms of with the specific player,” Reirden said Friday. “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.”
On Tuesday, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed that Smith-Pelly indeed failed to meet certain team conditioning standards at training camp. The Capitals open the regular season at home on Oct. 3 with a Stanley Cup-banner raising, and when Reirden was asked whether he’s concerned Smith-Pelly will be ready, he said, it’s “day-to-day in terms of how he’s progressing.”
“It’s about putting the player in a position to succeed and our team as well,” Reirden said. “We’re building towards Game 1, and obviously, I’m making the right decision for the whole group and for him as well.”
The reason for the secrecy is likely Reirden trying to protect a player who was crucial to the team’s championship run last season, scoring seven goals in 24 playoff games after he scored seven goals in 75 regular-season games. After Tuesday’s preseason game against the Blues, Washington has just two exhibitions left before the season-opener against Boston. Smith-Pelly said it’s a “coach’s decision” to hold him out of these first five preseason games. Reirden noted that Smith-Pelly was at the practice facility on Saturday, when the rest of the team was off.
Earlier this month the Tampa Bay Lightning terminated the contract of defenseman Jake Dotchin over conditioning issues, but a person familiar with the Capitals' thinking said the team won’t be taking that kind of action with Smith-Pelly.
“It was a short summer,” Smith-Pelly said last week. “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 then 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.
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