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How Devante Smith-Pelly went from healthy scratch to top-line player for the Caps

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How Devante Smith-Pelly went from healthy scratch to top-line player for the Caps

The Capitals have played in 40 games this season. Devante Smith-Pelly has played in 38 of those, but was a healthy scratch for the other two.

For a player in the situation Smith-Pelly finds himself in, the news that he would be scratched must have been pretty hard to take.

Already on the fourth team in his NHL career at the age of 25, this was a big year for Smith-Pelly. He came to Washington on a one-year deal for only $650,000 after getting bought out by the New Jersey Devils in the offseason, a move that took Smith-Pelly completely by surprise.

Considering his past, you may think things must not be going well for Smith-Pelly in Washington if he is getting scratched, but that is not the case at all.

“Every time I've taken him out, his staying power has been much better,” Barry Trotz said after practice Monday. “There’s growth in his game.”

RELATED: WHY DOES TJ OSHIE SWITCH TO A LEFT-HANDED SHOT IN PRACTICE?

When a beaten-up Capitals team finally got healthy, it meant Trotz would have to make a hard decision about who to take out of the lineup. Initially, Smith-Pelly found himself to be the odd man out.

He was determined to make sure that did not last for very long.

“I've kind of just been trying to show that maybe I bring something to the lineup that you don't want to take out,” Smith-Pelly said.

“He came back into the lineup and I moved him up pretty quick,” Trotz said. “He's making a statement like, ‘you know what? I'm not going to be out again. I'm going to make sure my plays stand alone and make your decisions really, really tough.’”

After getting back into the lineup, Smith-Pelly has worked his way from the fourth line up to the top playing alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

That type of versatility can be hard to find.

How often do you hear a player described as a top-six or bottom-six player? A top line or a fourth line player?

Different lines have different roles and different players have different roles on those lines. Smith-Pelly has shown a unique ability to adapt to whatever line Trotz has put him on this season.

“His game is one that can play all four lines which is hard to have,” Jay Beagle said. “There's not too many guys who can play on the first, second, third or fourth line. He plays the left and the right. He's incredibly smart out there, easy to play with.”

MORE CAPITALS: WILL NISKANEN MISS TUESDAY'S GAME IN CAROLINA?

Harder than being able to play all four lines is doing it as frequently as Smith-Pelly has.

“Sometimes you click right away, sometimes it takes a couple days or games to kind of get the right chemistry going,” Smith-Pelly said. “For me, my game doesn't really change so it's more just about reading off different guys. A center like [Backstrom] is pretty easy to play with at the moment. It doesn't take too long and I don't mind jumping around for sure.”

In his first game back on the top when Trotz shuffled up the lines, Smith-Pally tallied an assist on Matt Niskanen’s goal, his first point since scoring a goal on Dec. 12 against Colorado.

“For me, I think I've always played my best when I'm heavily relied on,” Smith-Pelly said. ”It's good for my confidence knowing that when things are changing. I'm kind of a guy who gets a look at those high lines.”

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Barry Trotz explains why returning from a bye week is harder than you think

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Barry Trotz explains why returning from a bye week is harder than you think

The biggest storyline surrounding the Capitals coming out of the bye week is how much the team seems to hate lengthy breaks.

By now you probably have heard Washington has lost three straight out of the bye. In addition to that, there have been three stretches this season in which the Caps have had to wait at least five days for their next contest. They lost two of those three games and they did so in decisive fashion.

Caps played Oct. 21, lost next game on Oct. 26 at Vancouver 6-2
Caps played Nov. 25, lost next game on Nov. 30 vs. Los Angeles 5-2
Caps played Jan. 2, won next game vs. St. Louis 4-3 in overtime

This also is not a new problem. Coming out of the bye week last season, Washington lost its first two games back and then went on to lose eight of 14 before they finally got back on track.

RELATED: WHERE DO THE CAPS LAND IN THE LATEST NHL POWER RANKINGS?

But why? Aren’t breaks in the schedule a good thing? After all, the bye week was negotiated for by the Players’ Association.

On Tuesday after practice, Barry Trotz tried to explain the difficulties of returning from the bye.

“The best way I can describe it is it's not different than someone going on a 2-week vacation. You come back to work and the first couple days, not really productive, right?

“You know how it is, when you get back, it's hard to get back in that routine.”

The bye week in hockey is different than what we see in football. In addition to no games, the players do not even practice. They do not get the benefit of a having a week of practice before the next game like in the NFL.

This year in Washington’s case, the Caps did not even get a chance to practice before returning to game action as they were forced to cancel practice the day before their game in New Jersey due to travel issues.

“You lose a little bit of that edge, a little bit of that sharpness,” Trotz said. “You lose a little bit of everything and then when it's over 20 guys, then all of a sudden it's difficult.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov also noted how the team struggles in January and February as an additional explanation.

“Physically we're pretty good and emotionally we're pretty good,” he said. “It's just those moments. If you look at the last 3 years I've been here, it's every year the same [expletive], same time. Always those 10-15 games in late January, early February it's always been wasn't great for us.”

MORE CAPITALS: TROTZ LIKES WHAT VRANA BRINGS EVEN IF THE ICE TIME ISN'T THERE

You do often hear about the “dog days” of a season when it suddenly becomes hard for teams to stay motivated every single night with half the season still to go. Now add in a bye week and you can understand why it may be hard for the players to ramp up the intensity level.

The added obstacle for Washington is they now face another break with the All-Star Game. Thursday’s game in Florida will be the team’s only game in a nine-day period.

With the Metropolitan Division standings as tight as they are, the Caps likely cannot afford another stretch of eight losses in 14 games like they suffered last year.

It’s interesting to see a team struggle after having too much time off. It’s a problem most people reading this probably wish they had. But it’s one that’s not quite as easy to overcome as you may think.

“I just think from the last couple years with the breaks in it, you understand that it's not just, hey you had a break, you should be fresh when you go on the ice,” Trotz said. “Unless you've played the game, it's hard to explain to people.”

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NHL Power Rankings: The Caps are singing the bye week blues

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NHL Power Rankings: The Caps are singing the bye week blues

A Capitals team that struggles after lengthy breaks is now indeed struggling after its return from the bye week. Since returning on Thursday against the New Jersey Devils, the Caps have lost three straight games including two at home with only two points to show for their efforts.

Heading into the bye, Washington looked like one of the top teams in the NHL with 14 wins in 19 games. Now, they have taken a step back and are working at returning to the level they were playing just a week ago.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Oh, and to make matters worse, the Caps do not play again until Thursday and then are off for the All-Star break.

It's Jan. 22 and Washington has only two more games this month. Even if they do figure things out on Thursday against the Florida Panthers, they will have to figure it out all over again when they return from the All-Star break on Jan. 31 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

So where do the Caps rank after their recent slide and how far could they fall if they do not right the ship? Find out here in this week's NHL Power Rankings!