A player to watch: Anaheim Ducks forward Devante Smith-Pelly

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When Team Canada hosted their World Junior camp earlier this month in Alberta, it was an opportunity for the hockey world to take a look at some of the NHL’s best prospects. As usual, there were 1st round draft picks that were simply biding their time before they make their inevitable jump to the most skilled league in the world. Guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Johansen, and Jonathan Huberdeau aren’t going to surprise anyone—those are the guys who everyone already knows. But every year there are guys who continue to progress and raise some eyebrows, as they show they are capable of taking their game to the next level.

This year, Anaheim Ducks prospect Devante Smith-Pelly showed that he could be that player. Ever since he was drafted in the 2nd round (42nd overall), the knock on Smith-Pelly was his consistency. He’d have games where he looked like a dominant beast on the ice; then he’d have games where he completely disappeared. Over the course of last year’s OHL playoffs, it looks like he has turned the corner and taken the next step. If consistency was the only thing holding him back, then watch out.

“I think it was just me taking every game as it’s ‘the biggest game,’” Smith-Pelly shared with Pro Hockey Talk. “I know in the regular season you can take a couple of nights off. You don’t want to, but it happens. It a long season. I looked at it in the playoffs like there were no nights off and I have to play my best every night. I thought that really helped me.”

There’s an understatement. In 20 postseason games with the talented Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, Smith-Pelly led his team with 15 goals and 21 points. In fact, the 15 goals tied him for the league lead in the OHL playoffs. He continued the strong post-season with three goals, three assists, and a selection to the all-tournament team.

Even though he’s shown impressive scoring touch since he dedicated himself to becoming a more consistent player, he brings much more to the table than just goals and points. For a comparable, fans need to look no further than the other team in Southern California:

“I try to play like a guy like Dustin Brown. A guy who throws huge hits, he can score, he’s a good leader. That’s probably the main guy I try to model my game after… [laughs] although, Dustin’s an LA Kings guy, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that,” Smith-Pelly says.

If he can play with the energy and leadership for the Ducks that Dustin Brown brings to the Kings, Smith Pelly will be allowed to say whatever he wants.

Most players constantly have to work at their two-way game before they can be seriously considered for the NHL, but a strong two-way game is one of Smith-Pelly’s strongest attributes. He hits everything that moves, takes good angles on the forecheck, and knows how to finish when he goes to the front of the net. Surprisingly, learning to be a good two-way forward is something new for the Scarborough, Ontario native.

“Yeah, Coach [Dave] Cameron has been helping me ever since I got there to work on my defensive game,” Smith-Pelly explained. “Coming into the OHL, the minor hockey league team I play on, we never really played defense at all, so he’s helped mold me into a two-way guy. When I went back this year I really wanted to work on my two-way game and he helped me out a lot. That’s the kind of thing I need to do to be successful at the next level and I’ve just been trying to show that.”

Although Cameron has immensely helped his game in Mississauga and he impressed observers at Team Canada’s camp in Alberta earlier this month, Smith-Pelly has his sights set squarely on the NHL next season. Scouts noticed an extremely strong, physical, grinding type of right wing. If he continues to develop at the same pace, he projects as a power-forward who will be able to score 20+ goals in the league.

Adding fuel to the fire, Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said earlier this summer that some of the promising prospects, including Smith-Pelly, will have an opportunity to make the team out of training camp this year. Whether he makes the big club this season or next, fans in Anaheim should start getting excited about the prospect they have—it looks like he’s blossoming into a good one.

Under Pressure: Bill Peters

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

“I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

  • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
  • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
  • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
  • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
  • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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The Carolina Hurricanes have been building up some buzz ever since Bill Peters helped transform a young core into an impressive possession machine.

Even so, whether you blame it on goaltending or some other factor, the Hurricanes haven’t made it to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season.

Management took measures to make some key upgrades in the off-season in order to break that slump.

Logically enough, Carolina searched for an answer in net, trading away Eddie Lack and boldly handing a four-year, $16.6 million contract to Scott Darling. With that, they’ll mix the future (Darling) with the past (Cam Ward) as their goalie duo.

Speaking of the past, the Hurricanes also brought back a vestige of their Stanley Cup victory, acquiring Justin Williams as a UFA. They added some additional championship experience by bringing Marcus Kruger into the mix, too.

Some of the biggest transactions come down to keeping players in the fold. The Hurricanes made it clear that, along with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin figure into their long-term plans with substantial contract extensions.

Of course, the biggest decision may come off the ice, as the Hurricanes’ ownership situation remains fuzzy at the moment.

Switching gears, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about the Hurricanes. Aside from a Williams here and Lee Stempniak there, this roster is brimming with young talent, including players whose peak years are likely ahead of them.

Still, at some point, potential needs to make way for production. PHT will examine where the Hurricanes might be headed in 2017-18 on this fine day.

Lehtera: Trade from Blues to Flyers will be ‘good for me’

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Let’s be honest. Jori Lehtera felt like a bit of an afterthought in the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and some significant picks to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just consider the PHT headline: “Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract.”

That’s certainly a fair way to look at it, as the Flyers received the 27th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and a conditional first-rounder in the deal. Would they have gotten such a haul for Schenn if they didn’t absord Lehtera’s $4.7 million cap hit, which expires after 2018-19?

Again, it’s easy to lose track of the human factor, as Lehtera was moved from the only NHL team he’s ever suited up for. While he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the news brought out both good and bad emotions, the 29-year-old believes that he’ll benefit on the ice.

“I have no idea why (the Blues traded me), but I think it’s better for me that I got traded, so I don’t really care why,” Lehtera said. “That’s the business part of hockey. It’s always tough to leave when you know all of the guys and the city. But hockey-wise, it’s going to be good for me. I didn’t play well at the end, but I think a new start will be really good for me.”

It’s been an interesting few years for Lehtera.

His numbers have dropped from his nifty rookie season (14 goals, 44 points) to 2015-16 (34 points) and finally last season (22 points).

Context matters, naturally, as centering a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko inflated his numbers, especially earlier on.

Still, that couldn’t have been a promising trend for both the player and the team.

The challenge will be to really make a mark with Philly. With Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier, and possibly even Nolan Patrick in the way, Lehtera would have plenty of competition down the middle. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was asked to move to the wing on occasion.

Lehtera certainly has plenty to prove, but he also gets a chance to make a positive first impression. If he can make an impact, then he’ll make Flyers GM Ron Hextall look that much brighter in the process.

Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.