Devante Smith-Pelly bounded from Anaheim to Montreal to New Jersey to Washington, where he arrived last summer to join his fourth team in four seasons and a coach who did not much care for the way he played. This he discovered during his introductory conversation with Barry Trotz, an amiable fellow but a candid critic, unsparing in his assessments.
“As a coach,” Trotz said, “you want to know what you’re getting all the time.”
That was Smith-Pelly’s primary demerit, and he knew it. Season after season, two good games would precede four poor ones, which is why he would be traded twice and waived once, a hockey nomad.
After Washington throttled the Vegas Golden Knights, 6-2, to move within a victory of its first Stanley Cup, after an adoring crowd chanted his initials following a tenacious clear on the penalty, Smith-Pelly stood in the center of a crowded locker room, his hands in his pockets, uncomfortable with the attention but elated by the performance that merited it.
On a team propelled by its top-end talent, from the greatest scorer of his generation (Alex Ovechkin) to an elite playmaking center on the verge of a Conn Smythe Trophy (Evgeny Kuznetsov) to a Vezina Trophy winner in net (Braden Holtby), it is Smith-Pelly, a fourth-liner, who embodies the Capitals’ ethos: persistent and relentless, a dynamo when doubted.
Trotz and the Capitals rallied around Smith-Pelly in February when a group of fans in Chicago directed racist taunts at him during a game there. A little more than three months later, he scored what proved the winning goal in Game 4 in the first period, performing some skate-to-stick sorcery with the puck to roof it from a sharp angle. Smith-Pelly scored in the last game, too, running his postseason total to six goals in 23 games — or one goal fewer than he managed in 75 across the regular season. He accepts this new designation, as playoff talisman, even if he cannot explain it, beyond that he is having fun.
Seeking a new team, he spoke with two friends on the Capitals, Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly, who suggested Smith-Pelly consider being an affordable option on a team with little salary cap space. He signed a deal that did not guarantee a roster spot and included a salary cut if he landed in the minors.
“There was no part of me saying that I was going to start in the minors,” Smith Pelly said, and he didn’t.
But first, that chat with Trotz. There were elements of Smith-Pelly’s style that Trotz appreciated: skating, physicality, penalty. He just wanted to see them more often, and he told Smith-Pelly so.
Their discussion registered with Smith-Pelly, 25, in a profound way. Entering his seventh season, he was a known commodity, but he wanted to change that. He viewed his opportunity with Washington as a pivot point.
“You only get so many chances to stick,” Smith-Pelly said. “I knew that this could be my last one.”
In his previous stops, he said, coaches did not communicate their expectations as concisely as Trotz. Even as Smith-Pelly hopscotched among lines, landing for a spell with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, he knew what Trotz demanded of him: playing hard and getting on the forecheck, and above all consistency.
“Probably what you’re seeing now,” Smith-Pelly said.
He delivered a complete effort Monday, despite taking a puck took to the face at the team’s morning skate, an errant shot by Andre Burakovsky. As he hurried to the locker room, he flung his helmet. The wound was glued shut .
Back in the locker room, Smith-Pelly was asked about his contract status for next year. He’s not thinking about it, he said. He has earned the trust of his coach and the admiration of his teammates. That sustains him for now.
However the remainder of his career unfolds, whether he stays in Washington or moves elsewhere (or somewhere after that), Smith-Pelly hopes to reflect one day on this moment, being on the precipice of the ultimate win. He is one victory from having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, the best kind of permanence, part of a team forever.