Devante Smith-Pelly kept a hopeful tone on breakdown day regarding his future with the Capitals.
“I love it here,” he said. “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, 26, will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and will need a new contract in order to remain in Washington.
General manager Brian MacLellan’s comments, however, reflected that there were other factors than Smith-Pelly’s play that contributed to his tumultuous season.
“Internally we had a couple of issues we had to work through,” MacLellan said of Smith-Pelly.
Those “issues” may end up being the reason Smith-Pelly is not with the Caps again next season.
After a brilliant 2018 postseason in which he scored seven goals in 24 games, expectations were high that Smith-Pelly could pick up where he left off to start the season. It became apparent in the preseason that would not be the case.
No player plays in every game of the preseason, but when the first five games had passed without Smith-Pelly getting into the lineup, it became apparent there was an issue. Eventually it was reported by Isabelle Khurshudyan that the issue was conditioning related.
Smith-Pelly denied that report, but as he reflected on his season during his final media availability, he did admit the short summer affected his preparation for the season.
“The summer was different for a lot of guys,” he said. “I mean, very short. 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.”
Smith-Pelly struggled to find much production throughout the season with only four goals and four assists in 54 games. That lack of production shockingly landed him on waivers prior to the trade deadline as the Caps needed to clear cap room for the acquisition of defenseman Nick Jensen.
Smith-Pelly was placed on waivers, exposed to all 30 NHL teams, and all 30 passed. He had gone full circle from playoff hero down to the AHL and he was assigned to the Hershey Bears.
MacLellan said after the trade deadline that waiving Smith-Pelly purely for cap reasons, but it is not a move you make with a player who was exceeding his expectations on the NHL roster. Smith-Pelly even admitted that the move was a necessary one for his play.
“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 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.”
With increased minutes and an increased role, Smith-Pelly scored six goals and eight assists in 20 games while with the Bears. He was even recalled by the Caps for the final three games of the playoffs after T.J. Oshie suffered an injury.
For those three games at least, the tough season was forgotten. Smith-Pelly was warmly received by both the team and the fans. On his first shift in Game 5, he delivered a hit which brought the red-clad fans to their feet and drew chants of “DSP! DSP! DSP!” throughout the arena.
There were no playoff heroics this time, however. Though he played well in a fourth-line role, Smith-Pelly was held off the score sheet in all three games and now is left with an uncertain future hoping to re-sign with the team that sent him to the minors just a few weeks earlier.
At 26, Smith-Pelly is not over the hill by any stretch. He has shown both in Washington and Anaheim that he is a playoff producer. His last contract was for a modest cap hit of $1 million and, given how things played out, it is conceivable that the Caps could potentially sign him for even less. That would be a major plus for a team that will be dealing with major salary constraints this offseason and will need cheap players to bolster the bottom six.
But after a season of “issues,” would the Caps want to commit another year?
MacLellan did not rule out a possible return for Smith-Pelly but did make it clear he had concerns and would not simply hand out a contract to him until those are addressed.
“I think we’ll talk to [Smith-Pelly] going forward,” MacLellan said. “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.”
As much as Smith-Pelly may be hoping to return, he also acknowledged the very real possibility that this may have been his final season in Washington.
“I would love to come back but at the same time if I’m not in their plans then that’s how it is,” he said. “I enjoyed my time here and we had a great two-year run here.”
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