Devante Smith-Pelly’s ‘roller coaster’ hits happy peak

Sportsnet hockey insider Jeff Marek joins The Jeff Blair Show to discuss how the Vegas Golden Knights are finally starting to resemble a typical expansion team.

LAS VEGAS – Hours before the night he scored the biggest goal of his life, the gap-toothed Devante Smith-Pelly took a slapshot flush in the face courtesy of teammate Andre Burakovsky and a rolling puck — a painful emblem of what the young man has endured over the past 365 days.

“Not the way you wanted to start your morning,” Smith-Pelly said through a glued-together mouth, grateful he hadn’t lost another tooth. Burakovsky owes him one. “At least a dinner. The minimum a dinner. At least.”

As he spoke to reporters at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, blood from the gash dribbled and dropped onto his tattooed forearm. Some spattered on the bench.

By the time he slammed the Game 4 winner — a beauty that required him to kick a skipping puck from his left blade to his right shot in stride — and helped whisk his new club within 60 minutes of history, the pain had mostly vanished.

Smith-Pelly punctuated the moment with a wonderful, one-kneed windmill fist pump. A full-throated “D! S! P! D! S! P!” chant thundered through Capital One Arena then, and again when one of his extra-effort plays stifled another Vegas Golden Knights power play.

“It’s not as sore now,” he said, following the Caps’ 6-2 victory Monday. “Obviously, [the chanting] makes you feel pretty good. I’m trying to focus on the game, but I did hear it.

“It’s been a roller coaster year. I can’t really explain the six goals in the playoffs but seven in the regular season. But I’m happy with the way I’m playing, happy with the way the team’s playing. I’m just trying to have fun.”

Wheeee!

That Smith-Pelly has no business being a Stanley Cup hero has made the past two months much more enjoyable. His is one of the best underdog stories in a series with so many of them, we’re cool with double off-days.

Ironically, the Knights could have acquired Smith-Pelly last June when his former team, the New Jersey Devils, left him exposed in the expansion draft. GM George McPhee passed over him and instead took defenceman Jon Merrill, who has struggled to get in the Vegas lineup.

The Devils didn’t want Smith-Pelly either. He was paid $225,000 this season to not skate for them. And the Caps weren’t sure if they wanted him.

They invited Smith-Pelly to a camp tryout in the fall. Fail that, and he could be out of the NHL before his 26th birthday.

“You only get so many chances to stick,” Smith-Pelly says. “I knew that this could be my last one, so I kind of took the buyout personally and listened to what the coaching staff had to say and what they wanted, and just went out there and did it.”

Washington’s forward lines were undergoing turnover due to budget, and the Toronto-born Smith-Pelly had a relationship with Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly.

“I wasn’t really paying attention to the situation here, but they kind of told me the cap was tight and stuff like that and they were going to need other guys to come in,” Smith-Pelly explains. “I took their advice and it worked out.”

Happy to block shots, kill penalties and forecheck — “the not-so-sexy things,” he calls it — and learn a whole new system and fit into it, DSP impressed coach Barry Trotz enough to be guaranteed $350,000 on a cheap, one-year, two-way deal. The league minimum. He’ll turn RFA on July 1.

Bouncing to his fourth franchise in three years, Smith-Pelly figures it took half the season to truly feel at ease rocking the red.

Connolly, a fellow bottom-six guy, credits the Capitals’ inviting dressing room culture and consistent production from the stars.

“His career’s gone up and down a little bit like a lot of guys on both sides,” Connolly says. “The guys here just kind of welcome you with open arms and make it a really comfortable place to just go and play and do your best. It’s been a good fit for me, a good fit for [Smith-Pelly].”

Thursday’s Cup-clinching bid will mark his 100th game this season—the longest, sweetest one of his life. Building on his series-winner in Round 1 versus Columbus, Smith-Pelly’s tag has morphed from buyout bait to clutch player.

“That’s what some people are saying, I guess,” he says. “It just so happens maybe I’m scoring goals at the right time. I don’t know. I love playing in the playoffs. That’s really the only way I can kind of explain it.”

To borrow a line from a Vegas fourth-liner, Pierre-Edouard Bellmare: “Nothing easy is good.”

On DSP’s toughest night, at least publicly, four fans in Chicago showered him with racist taunts as he served a penalty. Smith-Pelly heard those chants, too, and pointed out the perpetrators.

The United Center booted the racists, Trotz chastised the ignorance, and both teams issued statements that such actions would not be tolerated. Smith-Pelly himself could’ve swept the ugly incident under the rug.

He spoke out. That takes guts. Arguably more so in hockey.

“It’s sad that in 2018 we’re still talking about the same thing over and over,” Smith-Pelly said in February. “You’d think there would be some sort of change or progression, but we’re still working toward it, I guess, and we’re going to keep working toward it.”

As a civic apology, Chicago fans raised $23,000. Flipping a negative into a positive, Smith-Pelly directed the money to Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington.

A new player comes into Trotz’s room and the first thing the coach does is talk to him. Learn his background. Ask what the player believes he can bring to the table, strengths and weaknesses. Then Trotz will be honest about what he’s observed from the outside. The trick is drilling down so that the player, coach and the teammates understand each skater’s true identity.

“We talked about his brand as an individual player because, let’s face it: In our business, every player is their own company. They really are. They’ve got to fit into your team structure, and they all have different talents,” Trotz says.

“I asked him to make sure his game fits with who we are. You can still build your brand, we’ll still build your player, we’ll still build you confidence-wise, and I think there’s a trust with a player.

“Let’s see if we can build a brand that’s sustainable so that you cannot be bouncing around a little bit from team to team and have a long, sustainable career.”

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