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Opportunity Knocks

Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson try to make the most out of their opportunity

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Soon after Devante Smith-Pelly signed with the Capitals on the third day of free agency, he thanked general manager Brian MacLellan for the opportunity.

He probably could have also thanked his one-time teammate at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships, Brett Connolly.

It's not that Connolly recruited Smith-Pelly or vouched that he could contribute in Washington. But what Connolly showed the Capitals last season - that a player dismissed by one organization could become a key cog with another - was still fresh in MacLellan's mind when he signed Smith-Pelly to a one-year deal.

Not unlike Connolly, who didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Boston Bruins after the 2015-16 season, Smith-Pelly had the final year of his contract bought out by the New Jersey Devils last summer. Alex Chiasson, who didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Calgary Flames last offseason, is another similar case.

With their former employers moving in a different direction, all three became unrestricted free agents; Connolly in 2016 and Smith-Pelly and Chiasson in 2017.

In each case, MacLellan saw a player that could fill a void in the Washington lineup at great value. Connolly proved it last year, recording a career-high 15 goals and 23 points in 66 games. Smith-Pelly and Chiasson are doing the same this season as depth forwards and integral pieces on Washington's penalty kill.

"You only get so many kicks at the can," MacLellan says, "and when a new organization takes an interest in you, I think you perk up and try to prove them right."

Connolly did just that last season. His 15 tallies were the most by any player in the league averaging fewer than 11 minutes of ice time per game. He was rewarded with a new two-year contract over the summer. Not only has Connolly provided Washington with a double-digit scoring threat on the third line, but the Capitals have allowed Connolly, 25, to get his career back on track after a few trying seasons in Tampa Bay and Boston.

The sixth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Connolly had four goals in 68 games as a 19-year-old rookie with the Lightning in 2011-12. In retrospect, he admits, he may have been rushed to the NHL when he probably could have benefitted from additional seasoning in junior.

Connolly primarily played in the American Hockey League over the next two seasons, before the Lightning shipped him up to Boston at the 2015 trade deadline. In 76 games with the Bruins spread over parts of two seasons, Connolly had nine goals and 27 points.

Playing with the Capitals, though, has Connolly reinvigorated. 

"It's just a different vibe with this organization," he says. "I've had to work hard to regain a little traction in the league, and it's nice to be rewarded for it. Now you want to make good on the opportunity.

"You only get opportunities like this to show what you can do every once in a while, and when you do, you have to take advantage of it."

Which brings us to Smith-Pelly. Although he is only 25, the Capitals are already his fourth NHL club. The Scarborough, Ontario, native broke into the league with the Anaheim Ducks, who selected him 42nd overall in the 2010 Draft, before moving on to Montreal and New Jersey.

Last season was perhaps the most difficult of Smith-Pelly's career, when a nagging knee injury limited him to four goals and nine points in 53 games. He underwent season-ending knee surgery in March.

"To be completely honest," Smith-Pelly says, "I played the whole year hurt."

But Smith-Pelly arrived in Washington healthy and motivated. After a challenging season in New Jersey which saw Smith-Pelly's role fluctuate from night to night, the Devils informed him on June 30 that they were buying out the remining year of his contract. Three days later, he was a Capital.

"It's no secret that it's a bit of a wake up for any player around the league," says Tom Wilson, who trains with Smith-Pelly during the offseason in Toronto. "If you're bought out and the team says they don't want you, that's going to piss you off and make you hungry. It's going to bring that motivation back."

Smith-Pelly is not only energized in Washington, but he's also grown comfortable playing primarily as a left winger alongside Jay Beagle. The two have also teamed up regularly on the penalty kill. The opportunity to take ownership of a consistent role has gone a long way in Smith-Pelly's strong start to the season.

"He's been really easy to play with," Smith-Pelly says of Beagle. "We've built some good chemistry, and it's good to come to work and know what's expected of you each night. In Jersey, I'd be center, I'd be wing, top-six, bottom-six… I think being given a consistent role can go a long way towards a successful year."

Along with Smith-Pelly, Chiasson is also finding his niche on the Capitals third and fourth lines and on the Washington penalty kill. The Flames did not resign Chiasson last summer, despite a 12-goal, 24-point campaign in 81 games in 2016-17.

As a result, Chiasson also became a cost-efficient option for the Capitals, who invited him to training camp on a professional tryout. Chiasson wasn't guaranteed an opening night roster spot, but the Quebec native made the most of the opportunity and signed a one-year deal the day before the regular season.

The Capitals are Chiasson's fourth team in six years.

"In my situation that I've been in the last couple of years, changing teams and all that, it gets to a point where as a player, you want to prove that you belong," says Chiasson, who previously played for Dallas, Ottawa and Calgary.

"But I've learned from the past and I understand the league now and I know what it takes to be successful and it's the same for me. I think the biggest thing is I need a little more consistency in my game throughout the season. Some of that stuff is in my control, so I've got to prove that I can play and produce."

If Connolly is the model, there's no question that Smith-Pelly and Chiasson will get their opportunities in Washington. It's up to them to make the most of them.

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