Devante Smith-Pelly didn’t come to Calgary with excuses or baggage.
Soft-spoken, brutally honest, and full of life lessons after being served one heckuva reality check last season, the 27-year-old bash-and-crash winger is in this city simply trying to earn himself a job for the 2019-20 National Hockey League campaign.
He has nothing to lose, here on a professional tryout offer.
But heading into the summer, the former Washington Capitals forward and clutch Stanley Cup hero had no bites on his phone. Although the off-season market had its share of challenges with a plethora of unsigned restricted free agents — and uncertain salary cap situations — the lack of offers was, perhaps, predicable after Smith-Pelly’s tumultuous 2018-19 campaign that saw him spend a big chunk of the season with the Capitals’ AHL team in Hershey.
He had struggled with just four goals and eight points in 54 games before he was placed on waivers. Going unclaimed, he had six goals and 14 points in 20 AHL games and was recalled by the Capitals for the playoffs which saw Ovi and Co., bounced in the first round. Smith-Pelly had zero points in three appearances.
Perhaps he and new head coach Todd Reirden did not see eye-to-eye.
Perhaps he settled into an old pattern of inconsistency, a pattern that has followed him throughout his NHL career since he was drafted in 2010 by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round and through 395 regular season games with the Ducks, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, and Capitals.
Perhaps it was a combination of those factors, coupled with a self-admitted shortened summer as Smith-Pelly and his brothers-in-arms soaked in the jubilation of winning the 2018 Stanley Cup.
On a quiet day at Scotiabank Saddledome, as he joined some of his potential new teammates for an informal skate prior to camp, he addressed the concerns and told his side of the story.
“You give everything you have for that long and then you win, and you celebrate for however long you celebrate. You’re emotionally and physically just drained. You take a little break and the next thing you know, it’s August and you have to try and ramp it up again,” Smith-Pelly explained.
“I don’t know if it’s an excuse or not, but it’s hard. It’s hard to ramp it back up again. After doing something for that long and literally giving it your all … it’s done, (the hard work) paid off. You can finally breathe. And it’s tough to get back on.”
Smith-Pelly has a Stanley Cup ring. Only two other players currently on the Flames roster have one — Michael Frolik and Milan Lucic.
And there’s something to be said about the experience that comes with that. Good and bad.
“I don’t have any regrets about (celebrating). We won the Cup. We all enjoyed it,” said Smith-Pelly, who had re-upped with the Capitals last summer for one year at US$1-million. “I gave it all I had. And the next year, it didn’t work out — it’s tough. Not a lot of guys go through it, but when they do, they’ll probably tell you the same thing.
“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. It’s something I’ll always remember. And if it happens again, I’ll know how to approach it differently. But I’ve moved past it and I’m focused on what’s here now.”
Training with BioSteel founder Matt Nichol in Toronto, Smith-Pelly, who was born in Scarborough and is close with fellow GTA native and Flames forward Sean Monahan, was on the ice much earlier this spring. Nichol put him through the paces in late May and they continued all summer.
Flames’ training camp officially kicks off Thursday with medicals and fitness testing. Smith-Pelly, who is wearing Hathaway’s old No. 21, is confident he is fitter and better equipped than he was a year ago.
Good thing, because this isn’t a pity-party invite from general manager Brad Treliving.
“He was just talking about how they need a guy like me on the team, a guy who plays that that style,” said Smith-Pelly, revealing that Treliving was the only GM he actually had a phone conversation with. “He said there’s a spot, but they’re still trying to figure out the guys they have to sign and the salary cap. There are spots to be had, there’s movement coming or maybe not coming. It’s a place where a spot can be earned.
“They’ve seemed to have liked the way I play and seemed to have give me a real, fair shot. It’s not just a PTO for a body, it’s actually a good shot at making the team and that’s why I decided to come here.”
With the absence of Garnet Hathaway (who, in an ironic twist, signed with the Capitals during free agency), the Flames are lacking in punch. As the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs proved, there is still a place for that in today’s game. There’s also room, currently, because Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane haven’t signed deals with the Flames.
Smith-Pelly fits the bill, although his bruising impact is tough to showcase during training camp skates, especially when you’re going up against the reigning Norris Trophy winner in one-on-one drill battles.
Needless to say, he is looking forward to the pre-season schedule to heat up.
“When I was 18 and 19 and in my first training camps, guys were trying to kill each other in practice,” Smith-Pelly said. “It’s changed so now, when the puck is dumped in the corner, and Gio is going to get it, I’m not going to finish my check on him.”
He also has self-awareness and a clear expectation of what he brings to the table heading into this PTO with the Flames. He knows his skills are best suited for the third or fourth line and hopes to help out the team’s bottom-six forward group.
“I’m not going to play in the league, going end-to-end and dangling,” Smith-Pelly said. “Obviously I’m aware of that. When I’m successful, (playing hard) is how I need to play, and it’s how you have to play to be successful in the playoffs. I’ve had success doing that, so I’m just trying to bring that to this team.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019