Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Forwards: Devante Smith-Pelly

Devante Smith-Pelly

“There is a saying that every nice piece of work needs the right person in the right place at the right time.”
-- Benoit Mandelbrot

Devante Smith-Pelly is something of an odd hockey player insofar as his performance numbers are concerned.  In seven seasons in the NHL, his overall numbers are rather ordinary.  Since he came into the league in 2011-2012, he is 40-53-93 in 341 games.  There are 298 players in that span who have appeared in at least 300 games, posted at least 40 goals, and recorded at least 50 assists.  His is not a resume that jumps out.  For the Anaheim Ducks, the Montreal Canadiens, and last season (his first) with the Washington Capitals, it was the resume of a bottom-six forward.

But here is the thing.  Smith-Pelly has been an extraordinary performer in the postseason.  He made his first appearance with the Ducks in 2014.  Since then, he is one of only 19 players in the league to have appeared in fewer than 50 games (he played in 48) and posted more than a dozen playoff goals (he has 13).  To be in the same group as better known goal scorers such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Steven Stamkos, Marian Gaborik, and Jeff Carter is no small achievement.

And, while one can look at his record and think, “slow starter,” perhaps he seems to sense those games that matter coming.  His overall career numbers, by month, cleave into two distinct pieces.  From October through February, in no month does he average more than 0.12 goals per game (seven goals in 58 career October games being his highest).  But in March he has 11 goals in 57 career games (0.19 goals per game), and in April he has four goals in 22 career games (0.18 goals per game).  And, it is not a case of more frequent shots.  His shooting percentage in March (12.1 percent) and April (14.8 percent) is markedly higher than in any of the other five months of the hockey calendar (8.8 percent in October being his best in that group).

Odd Smith-Pelly Fact…

Devante Smith-Pelly is more than twice as efficient a goal scorer in the playoffs as he is in the regular season.  Over 341 regular season games in his career, he averages 0.12 goals per game.  In 48 career postseason games, he averages 0.27 goals per game.

Fearless’ Take…

Devante Smith-Pelly made his first postseason appearance in 2014 with the Anaheim Ducks.  He had five goals in 12 games, foretelling what would be a seven goals in 24 games performance for the Caps last spring.  In between, he had one goal in 12 games with Montreal in the 2015 postseason.  His 13 goals over the last five postseasons rank in the top 50 players over that span (tied for 41st), more than Patrice Bergeron (11 in 29 games), more than Chris Kunitz (10 in 79 games), more than Max Pacioretty (10 in 34 games), and more than Mats Zuccarello (10 in 47 games).  His teams have never lost a playoff game in regulation in which he scored a goal (10 wins, one overtime loss).  He has a knack.

Cheerless’ Take…

Seven goals in 2017-2018 tied Devante Smith-Pelly’s second-highest goal total in his career.  His year-to-year progress has not been one like, say, Tom Wilson, of regular improvement.  He had 14 in 64 games with Montreal and New Jersey in 2015-2016, but then he had 11 in 128 games over the next two seasons (including seven in 75 games with the Caps).  And, even though he played on some pretty poor teams, he has one season in seven in which he finished as a “plus” player (plus-5 with Anaheim in 2013-2014; he was minus-6 with the Caps last season). 

Potential Milestones:
  • 400 career games played (he needs 59)
  • 50 career goals (he needs 10)
  • 100 career points (he needs 7)
  • 5,000 career minutes played (he needs 621)

The Big Question… Can Devante Smith-Pelly use the 2018 postseason as a springboard into 2018-2019?

There just is not a lot to go on here.  Smith-Pelly had five goals in 12 postseason games with Anaheim in 2014, and then he followed that up with five goals in 54 games with the Ducks in 2014-2015 before he was traded to Montreal for Jiri Sekac and posted one more goal in 20 games.  It was a big postseason followed by a more characteristic unremarkable regular season.  On the other hand, it was one instance, and it was a 22-year old in what would be his first full regular season in the NHL.  And he did follow up that regular season with a 14-goal season in 2015-2016 (again with two teams – Montreal and New Jersey). 

Looking at a demographic profile similar to Smith-Pelly, if we look at forwards who, since 2005-2006, played in seven or fewer seasons up to their 25th birthday season, appeared in 300-400 games (Smith-Pelly has 341 games), and scored fewer than 50 goals, does it say anything about being a mid-career bloomer?  Well, here is the population of 20 in that group.  It does not inspire a lot of confidence that Smith-Pelly is going to emerge as a reliable mid-to-high teens scorer.  But, it is a group that includes Tom Wilson, so there is that, and he has fewer career goals than Smith-Pelly in more games played.

In the end…

Devante Smith-Pelly is an intriguing character.  He turned just 26 years old this summer (a week after the Caps won the Cup…happy birthday), so one might reasonably think that there is some potential upside that has not yet been tapped.  What he established last year with the Caps could be something on which to build.  He appeared in a career high 75 games. That’s not a small achievement in itself.  Although he averaged 64 games per season in the three seasons preceding last season, Smith-Pelly had not really established himself as more than a player occupying a spot on the margins of the lineup, eventually waived and bought out by the New Jersey Devils before landing in Washington.

Now, he gets another chance to demonstrate that his postseason work is something on which he can build.  Until last season, Smith-Pelly had not played more than 54 games in one season for any of the other three clubs for which he played, and he was traded in that season (from Anaheim to Montreal).  After a 75-game season, scoring the game-tying goal in the Cup-clinching win – one of a career high seven goals scored in one postseason, and signing a one-year/$1 million contract, he gets a chance to parlay “nice work” at the right time into a longer career as an NHL’er if he can carry over his fine work last spring into the upcoming regular season.

Projection: 74 games, 10-11-21, minus-3

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America