The New Jersey Devils have at least one or two scapegoat players every year for the fans to take out their frustrations on. Last year it was pretty much anyone on the third or fourth line. This year players like Jon Merrill, Mike Cammalleri, and Devante Smith-Pelly have been subjected to the most scrutiny. Like many of you, I’ve been especially displeased with Devante Smith-Pelly’s performance. It’s this lack of reliable scoring depth that’s leading to the Devils’ fifth-consecutive playoff-less campaign. I did at one point support the idea of Ray Shero dealing him at the trade deadline, but have since changed my perspective on the 24-year old right winger. After breaking down his career numbers and identifying a few statistical correlations in his career, I see how he could actually be poised to become a supplementary building block for New Jersey’s long term plans.
Just to remind everyone, it’s not like DSP came out of nowhere. Before making his NHL debut as a 19-year old, he had a productive OHL career for the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors. He played in 184 games, during which he tallied 78 goals and 153 points. He also had 25 goals and 40 points in 47 playoff games, including 15 goals in 20 playoff contests in 2011. DSP’s played 263 NHL games over six seasons. Not only hasn’t he played more than 54 games in one season (which is likely to change after this year), but Smith-Pelly hasn’t played more than 129 contests for a single team he’s played for.
Generally, the majority of prospects, regardless of projected quality need some degree of adjustment time in the NHL. On the contrary, it seems to be an apparent practice that prospects on cup-contending teams (like Anaheim and Montreal) don’t give younger players much of a window to contribute when they’re in a win-now mode. Despite the offensive potential behind him, DSP wasn’t going to get the necessary adjustment time while playing in a top-six role on a team like the Ducks, who at that time already had forwards like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, and Saku Koivu ahead of him.
In 51 games this year, Smith-Pelly only has four goals, nine points, and had mostly been relegated to a 7th-12th role with some occasional stretches in the press box. While I previously stated DSP was tied to that unreliable scoring depth that’s plagued the Devils, it’s fair to say that DSP didn’t have an ideal scenario to hone his development. He’s mostly spent the season playing with a combination of Vernon Fiddler, Sergey Kalinin, Beau Bennett, and Jacob Josefson; all of whom combine for seven goals this year. I can understand why DSP didn’t perform immediately when he had his chances in the top-six this season. His play has probably been influenced by the subpar rate of his usual line mates- most of which are part of that unreliable scoring depth I mentioned.
Keep in mind DSP is only 24-years old, and hasn’t had a chance to truly settle in with a team. He has an opportunity to do this with the Devils, while the team maintains its steady rebuilding rate. Smith-Pelly showed flashes of his offensive capabilities when New Jersey acquired him at last season’s trade deadline. DSP tallied eight goals and 13 points in 18 games last year, converting on 23.5 percent of his shots, and shooting 1.9 times per game. Compared to this year, DSP has a 5.5 shot percentage (he’s a 9% career shooter), and is averaging 1.5 shots per game. This is a likely side-effect from the quality of his line mates for the majority of the season, which is why he might always seem so thunderstruck on the many scoring chances he’s botched this season.
If you look at many of this year’s playoff contenders, you’ll see their rosters contain several players that have been within their organization for at least 250-300 games. If this sounds familiar, it’s the same construct that the Devils followed during their glory years- think Pandolfo, Madden, Brylin, Elias, Niedermayer, Stevens, Brodeur (just to mention a few).
DSP is a big body that can win battles along the boards, in the corners, and is difficult to move when parked in front of the net. He’s shown he has a nose for the net, and when he’s adjusted to playing with top-six-quality players, (like he mostly played with when he first joined the Devils), he has the potential to become a solid finisher. With the crop of young forward prospects that will be auditioning for roster spots next year and changes that are made this offseason, Smith-Pelly can find himself surrounded by a deeper more talented cast of forwards that help him elevate his game.