BROSSARD, Que. — Devante Smith-Pelly’s status as one of the NHL’s most productive players of late is — for lack of better words — shocking.
The 23-year-old winger had his first-ever three-point game Thursday night, bringing his total to six goals and three assists in seven games since being traded to the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 29.
Smith-Pelly had just six goals and six assists in 46 games with the Montreal Canadiens prior to the deadline deal.
“It’s difficult to produce when you’re only playing 10 minutes a game,” Smith-Pelly told Montreal newspaper La Presse this week. “There’s a big difference between my role on the Devils and the one I had with the Canadiens.”
Smith-Pelly is averaging 16:14 per game with the Devils — a mark he never reached this season with the Canadiens.
His effort rarely met reward in Montreal.
Smith-Pelly lost 13 pounds in the off-season and was determined to earn himself a bigger role with the team, but it never came to fruition.
Montreal’s depth at right wing was a factor that held Smith-Pelly back, according to Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.
“On the right side we got (Brendan) Gallagher, who’s obviously an important player for us. We ended up signing (Alexander) Semin, who we had to give an opportunity. You got Dale Weise, who had a really good start,” Therrien said Friday. “And I thought (Devante) played really well at the beginning of the year, got hurt and was having a hard time to get back to what he was showing early in the season.”
A right-hip injury knocked Smith-Pelly off stride in November — forcing him to miss one game before Gallagher went down with broken fingers.
Smith-Pelly rushed to get back and was given the first crack at filling Gallagher’s role. The result was a two-goal performance against the New York Rangers on Nov. 25: a flash of what he could do with a little bit more ice time.
But the experiment was short-lived, as Smith-Pelly found himself back on the fourth line barely halfway through Montreal’s next game.
“I played about 10 games with the injury,” Smith-Pelly told La Presse. “It became very difficult for me to get up and down the ice because of it.”
Smith-Pelly was sidelined from Dec. 4 – Dec. 21. By the time he came back, he had fallen out of Therrien’s favour.
“They scratched me more often than they played me,” Smith-Pelly told La Presse. “I didn’t agree with it, but it was a reality.”
When the Canadiens picked up forward Mike Brown off waivers early on Feb. 29, Smith-Pelly had a sense for what was coming next.
Some moments after finding out he was traded to New Jersey for forward Stefan Matteau, he said goodbye to his teammates, packed up his things and choked back tears during an interview with Montreal reporters.
“He’s a really close friend,” said Canadiens forward Jacob De La Rose. “He didn’t want to leave. He had been hanging out with the guys every day for the last year and a half. It’s tough to leave the guys. It was tough to see that he was that sad, too.”
De La Rose and his teammates are overjoyed for the Toronto native, who’s enjoying this late-season breakout in a contract year.
“I’m very pleased for him,” said forward Lars Eller. “I think he was as good of a teammate as anyone.”
Forward Alex Galchenyuk, who’s broken out with 12 goals in his last 11 games, isn’t surprised.
“I knew he was a physical player with grit, but I also knew he could go out there and play,” Galchenyuk said. “I played against him in the OHL, and he put up numbers there. I knew he had this skill in him.”
The Anaheim Ducks only got 14 goals in 129 games out of Smith-Pelly before dealing him to the Canadiens last season. He scored one goal in his first 20 games with Montreal before adding one more in 12 playoff games.
The opportunity to play with Devils forward Adam Henrique, whom Smith-Pelly says he fits well with, may have contributed to the recent success.
“There could be so many factors,” said Galchenyuk. “In my experience, confidence is big.”