Smith-Pelly, Rocket itching to get back to work

Photo: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game on for the Laval Rocket.

And maybe game on for newly signed forward Devante Smith-Pelly, too?

Laval hosts the Syracuse Crunch tonight in the team’s return to the American Hockey League schedule for the first time since Dec. 17. Since then, postponements due to league COVID-19 protocols have kept the Rocket idle while the parent Montreal Canadiens have been beset by their own postponements as well; both the Habs and the Rocket only returned to practice in recent days.

For Smith-Pelly, Wednesday could his first game since April 30, 2021, when he concluded a 14-game stint with the Ontario Reign. After a long job search, an opportunity with Laval arose. The Rocket sought forward help, Smith-Pelly needed a chance to return to the National Hockey League, and a match was made with a professional tryout agreement announced Dec. 30.

“We’re not sure yet,” Rocket head coach J-F Houle responded Monday when asked whether Smith-Pelly could be in the Laval lineup against Syracuse. “It all depends if we have any movement coming down from Montreal or not.”

The 12-10-2-0 Rocket, who are fourth in the North Division (.542), did receive forward Jean-Sébastien Dea back from the Canadiens on Monday. But on Tuesday they saw leading scorer Laurent Dauphin, forward Lukas Vejdemo, and defenseman Louie Belpedio recalled to taxi-squad duty with the Canadiens, who are preparing to return to action themselves at Boston tonight. Forwards Alex Belzile, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, and Jesse Ylönen also remain with the NHL club along with goaltender Cayden Primeau.

Whenever Smith-Pelly does make his Laval debut, the move has returned him to the organization where he played 66 regular-season NHL games between 2015 and 2016 and produced 15 points (seven goals, eight assists).

“Throughout this whole time,” Smith-Pelly began in a conference call Monday, “I’ve been trying to get a job and get on with a team. It came together pretty quickly. My agent just called me and said, ‘You know, Laval is interested in having you in.’

“So I jumped at the opportunity.”

Back when he arrived in Montreal in 2015, Smith-Pelly was a 22-year-old in his third pro season still trying to secure a full-time NHL job. Taken in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft by the Anaheim Ducks, Smith-Pelly played parts of three AHL seasons in that organization, including a 27-goal season in 2013-14 with the Norfolk Admirals. Now he returns to the Montreal organization as a 29-year-old having played 395 regular-season NHL games and having won a Stanley Cup in 2018 with the Washington Capitals.

But again he finds himself trying to reach the NHL.

Laval had won five of six before their season was paused last month.

“I’m only 29,” Smith-Pelly emphasized. “There’s still a lot of good hockey left. I haven’t played a lot since the pandemic started, so that kind of helps. In that way, there’s still a lot of hockey left in this body.”

After a standout performance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs in which he contributed seven goals in 24 games, Smith-Pelly found himself sent to the Hershey Bears for 20 games the following season. Then in 2019-20, he left for HC Kunlun Red Star, the Kontinental Hockey League team based in Beijing, China, and the past two seasons have found him caught in a difficult job market.

“It’s been a tough two years for everybody, not only just players,” Smith-Pelly said. “Everyone around the world, people who can’t work [or are] losing work. So, I don’t know, I just tried to keep positive all throughout this process, working out and skating at home and just waiting. The rest really wasn’t in my hands, so all I could do is just focus on myself.”

Laval faces a hectic schedule ahead with 48 games remaining, the third-highest amount in the AHL. It will be a challenging return as well against the 11-10-2-1 Crunch (.521), who have won four in a row since their own return to action Jan. 5. The game will commence a run of three games in four nights for the Rocket, and between the recalls, injuries, and that schedule, Houle sees opportunity for his players.

“It’s an opportunity for those guys to shine on a different level,” Houle said, “and get power-play time, [penalty-killing] time they would otherwise not get, and that’s how I see it.”

Smith-Pelly is one of those players who can benefit from those openings.

“I’m not looking too far ahead,” Smith-Pelly said. “I’m trying to take it day by day. I’m trying to get ready for [playing Syracuse], make sure I’m helping the team, and make sure I feel good… So I’m not really looking at it as a stepping stone or anything right this second.

“I’m worried about getting ready and then helping.”