The loss of assistant captain Brendan Gallagher is a tough pill for the Canadiens to swallow, but the injury has opened the door for Devante Smith-Pelly to take advantage of the opportunity.
After sitting out the Habs’ last contest against the Islanders on Sunday night due to a lower-body injury, Smith-Pelly returned to practice in Brossard where he took Gallagher’s usual spot on the top line with Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty. The trio is expected to remain in-tact for the Canadiens’ trip to New York where they will face off against the Rangers with first place in the Eastern Conference on the line.
Playing on the top line alongside the Canadiens’ top two leading scorers is a big opportunity for Smith-Pelly, who stressed that he can’t afford to try and change his hard-checking, grinding style that has been his trademark this season. “It’s pretty simple really. I think everybody has played with everybody at this point over the last couple years. I just have to do my job and let those guys do what they do,” commented Smith-Pelly, who was traded to the Canadiens last season on February 24, 2015 in exchange for winger Jiri Sekac. “My role can’t change. I don’t want to pretend like I am a fancy player when I am playing with those two guys, just keep it simple and do what I got to do.”
P.K. Subban, who lives close to Smith-Pelly in Toronto during the off-season, knew the former Anaheim Duck before he joined the Canadiens as he is close friends with Subban’s brother Malcom.
“I think he’s played well for us all year. He’s provided us with a big body on the forecheck and he gets into the offensive zone with speed and creates a lot of offense. I think his offensive skills are a bit underrated,” noted Subban, who echoed Smith-Pelly’s sentiments about maintaining his style of play on the top line. “For a guy who makes the kind of plays he does, people should expect more out of him. But now he is getting an opportunity to play on the top line and quite frankly I don’t think he needs to change anything. Just has to continue playing the way he’s been playing.”
Following an off-season spent zeroing in on improving his speed and acceleration, Smith-Pelly set himself up for a career year in 2015-2016.
“All I did really was focus on speed. I took the guidelines that Bergevin and coach [Therrien] gave me to follow and I just went home and did it. That’s pretty much it. They wanted me to work on my foot speed and acceleration,” explained the Scarborough, Ontario native who is on pace to eclipse his previous career-high of 20 points set in 2014-15. “It was mostly just small tweaks here and there. I always go home and work hard in the summer but I had a different game plan with my former team. This summer I just tried to go home and follow the guidelines I was given.”
Coach Michel Therrien’s decision to promote the former 2010 second-round pick was based on Smith-Pelly’s ability to use his big frame to create space for his line-mates but the coach also stressed his reliability on both sides of the ice.
"I do not want Devante change his style of play. When you play with Pacioretty and Plekanec, you face the best players and the best defenders. You cannot afford to take any risks and it is something he does beautifully,” praised Therrien, who has utilized Smith-Pelly throughout the Canadiens lineup including stints on the penalty kill and power play units. “He is responsible with and without the puck when he is on the ice. He goes hard to the net and he finishes his hits. When he is at his best, it is very difficult to play against him. The number one quality we're looking for from a guy who will play with Pacioretty and Plekanec is responsibility and Devante has it."
Smith-Pelly now faces the tough task of replacing tenacious forward Brendan Gallagher, but the 23-year-old winger seems to have picked up a few of his tricks.
“I just have to crash the crease I guess. Oh and smile every time I get hit in the face,” joked Smith-Pelly.'
- Jared Ostroff is a writer for canadiens.com