Devante Smith-Pelly knows the expectations he’s facing this season with the Washington Capitals are different from the last. Before, he was largely an unknown, a grinding forward who had bounced around the NHL for six seasons before landing in Washington.
This year, only five games into the season, he can no longer walk around the city without being recognized. Even without his No. 25 jersey covering his 6-foot, 223-pound frame, nearly every hockey fan in Washington – and in his hometown of Toronto — knows who he is. Inside Capital One Arena last Wednesday against the Vegas Golden Knights, a “DSP” chant — a staple during the team’s Stanley Cup run — once again broke out among fans.
The 26-year-old right winger was a playoff hero, the one who scored seven goals — matching his regular season total — and helped give the franchise its first championship. He was a breakout star in the playoffs, and now his team could again use his offensive productivity.
The Capitals’ bottom-six forwards have scored just two goals in the first five games, with both goals — from new fourth-line center Nic Dowd and third-line center Lars Eller — coming in Washington’s season-opening, 7-0 win over Boston on Oct. 3. By comparison, the Capitals' bottom-six forwards accounted for 23 even-strength goals during 24 playoff games.
“Looking at how things worked for us last year and the success we had, I would say it was paramount for why we were able to win the Stanley Cup,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “[It] was the depth of our scoring. You know that is something we can continue to tinker with and find the right combinations in that bottom-six role and find some chemistry there without changing it every other shift. But [we are] trying to find the right mix and still probably haven’t found it yet.”
The main reason for the tinkering in the bottom six has been top-line forward Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension, pending an appeal, for an illegal check to the head in the team’s preseason finale. With the Capitals down a forward, they brought in Dmitrij Jaskin, who is playing on the fourth line alongside Dowd and Smith-Pelly.
Given Dowd’s three goals last season and Jaskin’s six, Smith-Pelly, as his recent track record has shown, seems to have the most offensive promise of the three. With such strong numbers from Smith-Pelly in the playoffs, the Capitals hoped he would be able to carry that momentum into this year and became a consistent secondary scoring threat. Through five games this season, he’s still searching for his first goal.
He scored in Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, but Smith-Pelly’s most remarkable goal was his falling, off-balance equalizer in Game 5 that set the stage for Eller’s Cup winner. At the time, Capitals defenseman Christian Djoos said Smith-Pelly’s play was “just DSP,” and that “if there was a big goal to score, of course he is going to score it.” This year, the team knows Smith-Pelly can bring that spark, but there’s a learning curve, given his new linemates.
Smith-Pelly is the only returner on the line, and the trio is still getting used to one another’s tendencies. Additionally, Smith-Pelly said the line’s role has changed this season. Previously, the fourth line, centered by faceoff specialist Jay Beagle, would start in the defensive zone most of the time, with the focus being to win the faceoff, get the puck out of the zone and set up the forecheck. This season, with Beagle now in Vancouver, the line is not starting as often in the defensive zone. Instead, it has been focused on creating energy and getting as many chances as possible on goal.
“As long as we keep doing that, we will eventually turn it on,” Smith-Pelly said.
Calling Smith-Pelly a “difference-maker” in the playoffs, Reirden said he wants to see him continue to push his game forward. Reirden said he is planning to move Smith-Pelly up and down the lineup some, depending on the opponent.
“For me, it is important that he provides the energy he can and the ability he has to score big goals and also do a good job on the penalty kill,” Reirden said. “He is a real committed shot-blocker, and he brings things other than just scoring — which I think is important for all players, but especially for him in this situation.”
Smith-Pelly signed a one-year, $1 million deal in the offseason to stay with the Capitals and said he’s continuing to play with the same mind-set he did in the postseason, mostly getting in on the forecheck and going to the net. After missing the start of the preseason for conditioning reasons, he said he has done a good job of getting chances early this year. He thinks that, because the opportunities are there, the goals will soon follow.
“I just want to be consistent and make sure I am doing my job, night in and night out,” Smith-Pelly said. “That was my goal last year and, you know, we were successful with that mind-set, and so that is my goal again this year.”
More on the Capitals and the NHL: