Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly once again embraces the big stage

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WASHINGTON — Why does Devante Smith-Pelly play some of his best hockey in the playoffs? If you ask him, there’s nothing different; it’s just that the spotlight is bigger.

“The things that make my game successful are magnified at this time of year. All season I try and play physical, try and block shots and do those kind of things,” he said. “Obviously, this time of year it matters a whole lot more. It’s the most fun time to play. This is what you dream of. This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and making it to the Final and scoring that goal in the big game — I think I just really enjoy the big stage in games that matter and games that are fun.”

Smith-Pelly has scored a couple of big goals for the Washington Capitals during their run to the Cup Final, like the insurance tally in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final that forced a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His most recent one, his fifth of the playoffs, was during Game 3 Saturday night that served as the dagger to the Vegas Golden Knights’ comeback hopes in the third period.

This isn’t the first time he’s been a big scorer beyond the regular season. As a member of the Anaheim Ducks four years ago, he scored five times during the 2014 playoffs. He has 40 career regular season goals in 341 games. Through Game 3, he now has 11 goals in 46 career playoff games.

“I love playing in the playoffs. It’s fun,” he said. “It just so happens maybe I’m scoring goals at the right time. I don’t know. I love playing in the playoffs. That’s really the only way I can kind of explain it.”

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Last June 30 Smith-Pelly was informed his time with the New Jersey Devils was over. He would be waived for buyout purposes and the first few days of free agency would be spent finding a fourth NHL team in four seasons. He would sign a one-year deal with the Capitals in early July and have to prove himself to make the team out of training camp. Initially, head coach Barry Trotz had low expectations about the move.

“I wasn’t sure on him, to be honest with you,” Trotz said in January via the Washington Post. “Just because of not seeing him enough and not knowing him, I knew there was something there, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t a big fan.”

After arriving in D.C., Smith-Pelly and Trotz sat down for a conversation where the head coach gave his opinion of the forward’s game from an outsider’s perspective. Trotz obviously wanted the signing to work and the two discussed areas of Smith-Pelly’s game that were strong and what areas could be built upon. 

That was the start of Smith-Pelly finally feeling at ease. As a player who thrives with confidence, with Trotz being forgiving about certain mistakes, the 25-year-old forward’s comfort level with his new environment continued to grow.

“Roller coaster,” said Smith-Pelly, describing his season. “Starting from the summer and signing here, having to make the team out of camp, it’s been a roller coaster but at the same time I’ve had a lot of fun too.”

One of Smith-Pelly’s strengths is his versatility. He plays a physical game, can block shots, play on the penalty kill and chip in offensively. And when needed, he can move up and down the lineup, as shown when he played along the Capitals’ top line during Tom Wilson’s suspension earlier in the playoffs (even if it didn’t work out that great.)

Smith-Pelly is part of a Capitals’ secondary scoring group whose contributions have helped them to this point: two wins away from the franchise’s first championship.

“His career’s gone up and down a little bit like a lot of guys in both series,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly. “He’s stepped up huge for us and we’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s been doing for sure.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Day 3 of NHL training camps sees Kaprizov talk, Fleury absent again

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Day 3 of Return to Play training camps is another day closer to the puck being dropped for real. Teams are still trying to get back into game rhythm and rekindle the chemistry that was put on pause in mid-March.

The popular phrase “unfit to play” wasn’t uttered as much as it was on Monday and Tuesday. But given the “new normal” of injury reporting in the NHL now, we’ve certainly not heard the last of teams not expanding on why a player wasn’t on the ice.

Let’s take a quick skate around Wednesday’s happenings.

No panic over another Fleury absence

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not on the ice for the third straight day. The team stressed his absence was not COVID-19-related. Head coach Peter DeBoer said it’s just maintenance and he expects him to join the team before the weekend.

“He’s feeling good,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got a long runway here before we start. He really practiced hard. He doesn’t have anything significant. The plan is he will be on the ice before the weekend.”

Kaprizov signed, sealed, but yet to be delivered

Three head coaches and four general managers later, Kirill Kaprizov is finally a Wild player. The 2015 draft pick held a Zoom call with reporters and was virtually presented with his No. 97 jersey by GM Bill Guerin.

Wild TV

While Kaprizov is able to burn the first year of his two-year entry-level contract, he won’t be able to play in the Return to Play program. He will be able to practice with the Wild, pending he’s able to join the team before they head to Edmonton. The team is still working on visas for the 23-year-old forward. There’s also the issue of international quarantine once he arrives from Russia.

“He knows everybody’s waiting for him, and he can’t wait to put on the jersey himself, as well,” Kaprizov said through interpreter Alex Buzi. “He hopes that’s going to happen sometime as soon as next week, and he’s really eager and excited to join the team.”

What might Patrik Laine do during his down time in the bubble?

Maple Leafs getting into game mode early

There are roster spots up for grabs for the Maple Leafs, so what better way to help the selection process than a good old fashioned tournament.

That’s what head coach Sheldon Keefe did on Wednesday, splitting the squad up into two teams — Team Auston and Team Freddie — in a best-of-five series featuring officials.

“I think it was great. You’ve got to get used to where the refs are out there again. Coming into the zone, just setting up in the zone, it’s a little different when they’re not there,” said William Nylander said. “They take up some space so running our power play without would leave some extra space that we wouldn’t be used to once the games start. I think that was a great aspect to have included.”

The NHL has stepped in, however, and said no to officials in the future. The risk of exposure for both sides is too great of a risk.

Keeping up with the Kovalchuks

Ilya Kovalchuk played only seven games with the Capitals following the February trade from Montreal. After a forgettable time with the Kings, he was rejuvenated with the Canadiens, and there’s plenty of excitement to see him in that Washington lineup on an extended basis.

The 37-year-old was busy during the break with training and being occupied with his four kids.

“I gotta keep them busy and I want to lead by example, so we’re doing something every day,” he said. “No days off for our family.”

Even the training sessions became a family affair:

Vatanan healthy for Hurricanes

When the Hurricanes play the Rangers, Sami Vatanen will make his long-awaited debut for his new team. The defenseman has been out since suffering a leg injury Feb. 1. He was dealt from the Devils later that month but did not play for Carolina before the pause. Five months later, he’s good to go.

“Health-wise, I feel 100 percent,” Vatanen said. “I have no worries about that. Of course, it takes a little time to get to game speed, but we have a long time still until we start to play, so I will be ready.”

The Hurricanes’ blue line will be bolstered for their series with New York. Not only will they get Vatanen back, Dougie Hamilton will also make a return from injury. He fractured his left fibula in January.

“Dougie’s back, and now we’ve got to find somewhere else to put [Vatanen],” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “He’s a talented player. You’re talking power play. That’s what he does. He’s good at it, but there’s a learning curve, and we can’t wait five games to see if it will work with him.”

MORE: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

‘Luck in disguise’: Layoff helps Blue Jackets get healthy

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Considering they are about to resume the season amid a pandemic, the Columbus Blue Jackets are healthier than they’ve been in a long while.

When the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, injuries to top players had piled up, and coach John Tortorella had started to fret that the youngsters he plugged into the lineup wouldn’t have the steam to carry the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.

All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand were out with broken ankles. A long list of others had missed games with various injuries, including the two top goalies.

“When Oliver goes out — and he was our best player at that point in time — when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time,” Tortorella said after opening practice this week ahead of a five-game playoff qualifying series against Toronto set to begin Aug. 2.

“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games we had to play,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to say we weren’t going to get in, but it was a struggle.”

Jones and Bjorkstrand are healed and back at full speed. So is veteran Cam Atkinson, who had struggled with a high ankle sprain. Goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom excelled at different times this season, are healthy and will compete to start in the net against Toronto.

Jones, who had surgery Feb. 11, called the forced layoff “luck in disguise.”

“It’s so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on our team that have been such as asset to us,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale. We’re getting back our leaders.”

The season was unusual for the Blue Jackets even before the coronavirus. The team was struggling in early December before a winning streak helped it climb into contention in the Metropolitan Division.

As regulars went down to injuries, Tortorella summoned players who had started the season at the team’s top minor league club in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets stayed in it, and when the season was paused on March 12, they were above the wildcard line in the Eastern Division. When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason upon resumption, Columbus was seeded ninth in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in the play-in round.

Some of those young players, including forwards Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson are expected to contribute even with the team back to near full strength.

Columbus will face a potent Maple Leaf attack led by stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Toronto’s 237 goals were second in the league to Tampa Bay’s 243 when the season was suspended.

“Essentially, we’re all starting from zero, right?” Atkinson said. “So it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season, what teams were hot, the injuries and what not. We’re just all healed up and ready to go.”

Tortorella said safety is the priority as the team travels to Toronto to enter the “playoff bubble.”

“We’re going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach. “There is a point — and I talked to the team — I don’t want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We’re going to protect the players, the league is going to protect the players, we need to get ready to play hockey also.”

Matthews, Toronto’s star center, said Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 last month in his home state of Arizona but was largely asymptomatic and has fully recovered. Columbus has reported no cases.

2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists: Hughes, Makar, Kubalik

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The NHL announced Quinn Hughes (Canucks), Cale Makar (Avalanche), and Dominik Kubalik (Blackhawks) as the 2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists. The wording of the Calder, aka rookie of the year, is that it’s given to the player who was  “most proficient in his first year of competition.”

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on the Calder Trophy each year. Elias Pettersson took home the Calder Trophy in 2018-19.

This year’s Calder Trophy winner will be announced sometime during the Conference Finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Calder Trophy cases for finalists Hughes, Kubalik, Makar

The case for Quinn Hughes

Hughes, 20, topped all rookies — not just rookie defensemen, all rookies — with 53 points in 2019-20. In doing so, Hughes became just the third rookie defenseman to top rookie scoring outright (joining Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch).

By averaging 21:53 time on ice, Hughes ranked second (just a slight bit behind Ethan Bear of the Oilers [21:58]). Alexander Edler (22:37) stood as the only Canucks player who averaged more ice time than Hughes this season.

Hughes joined Makar among rookie defensemen who jumped immediately into big roles, and passed most tests with flying colors.

This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey captures some of what made Hughes special. He created offense while avoiding many of the mistakes you’d expect a rookie (and an offensive-minded defenseman, in general) to make:

Calder Trophy finalists Quinn Hughes RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

The case for Cale Makar

While Hughes tops some of the volume stats, Makar makes a “quality-over-quantity” argument for the Calder.

Makar scored more goals (12) than Hughes (eight) even though he appeared in fewer games (57 games played to Hughes’ 68). Despite missing that time, Makar finished second among all rookies with 50 points. Averaging .88 points per game is difficult for any defenseman; it’s extremely rare for a rookie. Makar expands the list of rookie defensemen with at least .88 points-per-game with 50+ games played, joining Larry Murphy and Al MacInnis.

Like Hughes, Makar didn’t totally sacrifice defense to create offense. Makar grades well on Evolving Hockey RAPM charts, too:

2020 Calder Trophy finalists Makar RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

[More: Hughes vs. Makar from earlier in 2019-20]

The case for Dominik Kubalik

It will be a tough call between Hughes and Makar, but others enjoyed strong rookie seasons. A certain portion of hockey fans may debate Kubalik vs. other 2020 Calder Trophy finalists for some time. Beyond historic seasons for Hughes and Makar, defensemen like Adam Fox and John Marino made this a special year for rookie defensemen.

But Kubalik turned heads, too, even more than other high-scoring rookie forwards such as Victor Olofsson of the Sabres.

Kubalik topped all rookies in goals with 30, scoring 46 points in 68 games. While the Blackhawks forward is unlikely to become the first Czech-born Calder Trophy winner, he’s the first Czech-born player to lead all rookies in goals.

Hughes, Kubalik, and Makar are all involved in the 24-team 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so you can get another peak at the 2020 Calder Trophy finalists during the return to play. (COVID-19 permitting.)

NHL AWARD FINALISTS, ANNOUNCEMENT DATES

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Cassidy, Tortorella, Vigneault are 2019-20 Jack Adams Award finalists

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Bruce Cassidy of the Bruins, John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets, and Alain Vigneault of the Flyers have been named finalists for the 2019-20 Jack Adams Award, given to the head coach who has “contributed the most to his team’s success.”

All three head coaches aren’t strangers to being a finalist for the Jack Adams. This is Cassidy’s second time in the last three seasons in the top three, while Tortorella and Vigneault have been honored five times. Tortorella has won it twice (2003-04 and 2016-17), while Vigneault took home the award in 2006-07.

Barry Trotz of the Islanders was last season’s winner.

The NHL Broadcasters’ Association vote, with the winner announced during the conference finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

The case for Bruce Cassidy: At the time of the March NHL pause Cassidy’s Bruins had the most points (100) and highest points percentage (.714) in the league. That success resulted in a Presidents’ Trophy for the franchise. Boston led the NHL in wins with 44 and hit the 40-win mark for the seventh straight season. Special teams played a big role in another strong year as the Bruins boasted the second-best power play (25.2%) and third-best penalty kill (84.3%). A win would make Cassidy the fourth coach in franchise history to win the award following Don Cherry (1975-76), Pat Burns (1997-98) and Claude Julien (2008-09).

The case for John Tortorella: Despite losing their two biggest stars in free agency, Tortorella’s Blue Jackets didn’t allow that to hold them back. Columbus surprised many and put themselves in position to be part of the NHL’s expanded Return to Play plan. During their final 41 games the Blue Jackets had two separate double-digit point streaks to keep them in the postseason mix. He’s the only coach in franchise history to have won the Jack Adams.

The case for Alain Vigneault: In his first season with the Flyers, Vigneault led them to a .645 points percentage at the time of the March pause and put them among the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds. A nine-game winning streak in mid-February help push them up the standings. He would become the fifth coach in franchise history to win the Jack Adams after Fred Shero (1973-74), Pat Quinn (1979-80), Mike Keenan (1984-85) and Bill Barber (2000-01).

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik

• Thursday, July 16: Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy
• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.