Smith-Pelly shines in challenging first season

There are statistics for hits, blocked shots and ice-time, but in any thorough analysis, there isn’t really a number that gives an accurate reading of “toughness” or “endurance”.

Devante Smith-Pelly’s four goals and seven points through 35 games with the Anaheim Ducks don’t provide the most complete representation of the character he’s displayed as a 19-year old in the NHL. It would have been natural for a less “tough” teenager to succumb to the rigors and demands of a rookie season interrupted by inconsistent team play, a coaching change, a broken bone at World Juniors, and the battle to compete with veterans for ice time and a prominent role on a team charging for a playoff spot late in the season’s second half.

Instead, the former second round draft pick has fit right back into the Anaheim lineup like a missing puzzle piece, providing the intangible services of a forechecking, boards-savvy manchild.

He may not turn 20 until June, but the 6-foot, 211 pound right wing does much of the plumbing and heavy lifting for a team that not coincidentally has experienced a little bit more space in the offensive zone since his return.

“His body is dense,” George Parros said to Jeff Miller of the Orange County Register. “I would say fullback more than anything. You get a guy like Devo, you hit him and you feel it. There are guys out there who have a really good center of gravity. They’re heavy on the puck and hard to get off the puck. He’s one of those guys.”

Since returning from a broken bone in his left food suffered while blocking a shot in Canada’s World Junior Championship opener against Finland, Smith-Pelly had seen the plurality of his playing time opposite Andrew Cogliano on a line centered by Nick Bonino, and appeared to find a strong fit. He followed up a four-shot, third-star performance in a win over Calgary last Friday with a goal and a plus-one rating in a loss to Los Angeles the following night while finishing checks, forechecking and showing the ability to win battles against stronger, more veteran hockey players along the boards.

“I was surprised that he was 18 when he came in,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I never knew who he was, but he’s definitely got a body of an adult. He’s got a man’s body, and he plays physical and he’s strong and he’s only going to get bigger and stronger.”

He’s also weathered out a mature temperament, having endured a bumpy rookie season all for the better, apparently, after his final junior season in which his Mississauga St. Michaels Majors lost in the OHL Championship before hosting the Memorial Cup, where they lost once again in the finals.

“It’s been a little bit of a different season for myself, going down to World Juniors, getting hurt, and then getting to play in the AHL a bit and getting back,” Smith-Pelly said. “I feel like I’ve definitely grown as a player, for sure, just practicing with all these great players every day and starting to build more confidence every day.”

Growing under a head coach with a .660 career winning percentage entering this season has also smoothed out some of the season’s rougher edges.

“I felt right around the Christmas break right before I went to World Juniors, probably around the time Bruce came on board, that’s when I kind of felt I’m getting the hang of this, you know, I can be an everyday player,” Smith-Pelly said.

“I think Bruce kind of gave me a little bit of extra confidence, and I’m just hoping to continue that.”

This is a Ducks team anchored by their first half collapses, and while a playoff berth isn’t likely be the latest surprise in Smith-Pelly’s eventful first season, the late season race still provides an opportunity to make up for lost time and establish a base of improvement heading into his second NHL season, where he’ll be pushed for playing time by Ducks prospects Emerson Etem and Patrick Holland – and as a 20-year old will also feature an option to be reassigned to the AHL instead of major junior.

He also bucks the tendency of under-aged NHL players often being skilled, impact forwards, having beat out several more advanced and physically mature players for a roster spot as a rare 19-year old, third-line grinding forward.

“Obviously I knew I wasn’t going to come in and just be a high scorer or anything like that,” Smith-Pelly said. “I knew if I wanted to make this team, that would be the role I’m in. I accept that, and I’m willing to do what I have to do to help the team win.”

It’s also drawn notice from captain Ryan Getzlaf, one of the Ducks’ skilled players who hopes to rely upon a softer defense after Smith-Pelly’s line has rolled through.

“We need scoring from everywhere,” Getzlaf said, “and they’re playing well defensively, grinding teams down in the offensive zone and forcing some d-men to play a lot of minutes over there.”

“They’re playing well.”