Devante Smith-Pelly emerged from the Capitals’ locker room on exit day, his hat pulled down to slightly cover his eyes. He stared straight ahead for a moment at the rink, one that he didn’t get to skate on as much as he expected to this season – and one that he may not see for a while moving forward.
The 26-year-old wasn’t the loudest or the first to talk at exit day, often shifting his gaze to watch the floor and occasionally glance at the scrum around him, but he didn’t shy away from expressing his disappointment, especially after an odd year and only getting to be back up with his main club for three games to end the first round.
“It was fun to come back and play, except it sucks that I came back because someone got hurt,” Smith-Pelly said. “That’s not how I wanted it to be. It was fun to come back, but it just sucks that it had to end so quick.”
Just two months before training camp, Smith-Pelly was the Caps’ hero; he put up seven goals and an overall outstanding performance through the Caps’ Cup run, which earned him accolades from the fans and management, as well as a one-year, one-way extension.
However, things would take a 180 degree turn once training camp opened. Smith-Pelly wasn’t skating as fast as he was. He didn’t have that same step in his game.
And most of all, the coaching staff wasn’t impressed as he was held out of game action in the preseason, with Todd Reirden explaining the wasn’t at the level he was at just a season ago.
“The summer was different for a lot of guys. I mean, very short,” Smith-Pelly said. “Guys are hurt going into the summer, so obviously you don’t have the same routine as you’ve had in years’ past to get ready. I guess that just affected me more than some other guys. You try to get your footing, and stuff happens.”
Through 54 games to start the year, Smith-Pelly managed just eight points, and he wasn’t displaying a lot of agility or chemistry with his line mates. At the trade deadline, a surprising decision came; while it was said that Dmitrij Jaskin would hit waivers for Washington to make space for Carl Hagelin, it was actually Smith-Pelly.
Hours passed as fans said their goodbyes to Smith-Pelly, expecting one of 30 teams to take him as soon as they were able. But none took a chance on the winger as the 12 p.m. deadline came and went. He ended up in Hershey to work on his performance and turn things around, which was less than ideal for him.
“With the Hershey thing, I mean, I don’t know. It happened, and I went down there and worked on my game and felt good about my game,” Smith-Pelly said. “I came back and I just wish we were playing more games.”
Smith-Pelly impressed in Hershey, managing six goals and 14 points through 20 games before he earned a call-up to Washington for the final three games of the first round.
The return was long-awaited not just by fans, but from his teammates, who missed having his presence in the dressing room since February.
“The chemistry we had all last year, to have that back is awesome... he’s such an upbeat and positive guy and made everybody happy when he came back,” linemate Chandler Stephenson said.
Smith-Pelly, who hadn’t played in the minors since 2014, said looking back, while he would have wanted to stay up with the Capitals through the entire year, he believes he “did what [he] was asked to do” in Hershey to get back to 100 percent.
“It was a necessary step to try and get my game back,” Smith-Pelly said. “I know this is the level I should be playing at and that was just something I had to do to get my game back to this level. I enjoyed my time down there. It was fun to play in different situations, and I think it worked out in a positive way.
“I don’t know about next year, if it’s going to carry over, but at the time, I could have been staying here... I got a chance to go down there and play a lot. That’s what [management] thought was best, and that was their prerogative.”
Moving forward, the future holds many questions for the 6-foot, 214-pound forward. He becomes an unrestricted free agent in July, and with players like Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky needing extensions, Smith-Pelly may find himself on the outs.
Still, general manager Brian MacLellan said that he plans to address the next steps with Smith-Pelly and that they started to talk slightly about the possibility of returning.
“You know, it has been a good fit for him. Internally, we had a couple issues we had to work through,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ll talk to him going forward. I had an exit interview meeting with him and out-laid our expectations and we need to be assured that requirements would be met before we brought him back.”
Ultimately, Smith-Pelly, still watching the rink he would have loved to skated on a couple more times, mentioned that he is interested in coming back to Washington next year and that a longer summer, even if it wasn’t wanted, will serve him well.
“I haven’t thought about it at all. I love it here; I love all the guys. I love everyone in the organization and city as well. If they want me back, I want to come back,” Smith-Pelly said, adding, “we’re a family.”