The Caps own the Cup, but the future is unclear. Now, at the dawn of the offseason, it’s time to ask ourselves the big questions.
In this episode: What should the Caps do with Devante Smith-Pelly after a legendary playoff performance?
One year ago, Devante Smith-Pelly‘s NHL career was over. After two years on New Jersey’s bottom six, the Devils bought out Smith-Pelly’s $1.3 million annual contract. When the Caps picked him up on a league-minimum deal, Smith-Pelly was a reclamation project. His ceiling seemed set as a replacement-level depth forward, but a big 2014 playoff performance for Anaheim (five goals in 12 games) offered a glimpse at what could be. It came to be.
Devante Smith-Pellly scored seven goals for the Capitals on their 24-game road to a Stanley Cup, including three goals in the final round. He was as clutch as any grinder can be, and now – without a contract for 2018-19 – he’s primed to get paid for it.
Depending on how they’re used, depth forwards like Smith-Pelly usually come with a structural disadvantage. All the good offensive-zone starts are saved for the top lines, and so the bottom line has to take tough defensive-zone starts often against opponent scoring lines. As a result, we bake into our expectations that these forwards are more likely to get outshot and outscored (i.e. goal and shot-attempt numbers under 50 percent). So even though Smith-Pelly’s personal goal-scoring defied expectations, the on-ice results did not: The Caps were outscored eleven to nine during his 5-on-5 postseason shifts.
(If that nine jumps out to you, yeah, me too. The Caps scored nine goals while Smith-Pelly was on the ice, and he personally scored seven of them. More on this below.)
Still, the conclusion is hard to miss: even with stellar boxscores, Devante Smith-Pelly is a marginal NHL player. That’s a bummer.
Of the 300 forwards who played at least 700 minutes in the regular season, Smith-Pelly’s game score per hour (a measurement of productivity) was the 13th lowest. (Jay Beagle was third lowest, ahead of ex-Cap Jason Chimera and Buffalo’s Johan Larsson.)
Smith-Pelly was used defensively, starting 56 percent of his non-neutral shifts in the defensive zone, and he was underwater in every measurement: shot attempts at 44 percent, expected goals at 47 percent, goals at 43 percent. These are brutal numbers.
But there was a consistent upside to Smith-Pelly’s game, and one that paid dividends in the postseason: his shot volume. During the regular season Smith-Pelly personally attempted 13.4 shots per hour – ranking him fourth highest among Caps forwards.
Here are the individual rates for each Caps forward.
|Player||Attempt||On Goal||Scoring Chance||High Danger|
What Barry Trotz saw when he put Smith-Pelly on a line with Alex Ovechkin in November and January is undeniable: stick-handling and offensive skills that transcend his role as a fourth-line forward. Those were the same skills on display when Smith-Pelly kicked a puck to his stick to score a thrilling goal when it mattered most.
Clutch has a bad reputation in serious analysis. Clutch is when the pattern and profile of a player’s contributions are distorted by an anecdote. But the manner in which Smith-Pelly was clutch just so happened to be the result of the same brilliance that led Trotz to give the player a try on the top line and that attracted Washington to him in the first place. Smith-Pelly won’t ever be a 20-goal scorer, but there is definitely some untapped potential in him.
Add that potential to Smith-Pelly’s winsome attitude, personal bravery in speaking truth to power, and his position as a role model to a city where the majority of the population are people of color, and you can see the quandary the Caps are in. Smith-Pelly is replacement-level player who is irreplaceable. He’s a marginal player who delivered the margin of victory for a championship.
Personally, I’d like to see Smith-Pelly back with the Caps on a retooled fourth line. But if that doesn’t happen, DSP will always be a DC legend to me and a million of my friends.
— WPGC 95.5 (@WPGC) June 12, 2018
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
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