After Smith-Pelly’s three-point performance Thursday night, he told nhl.com: “So far, I think I fit like a glove (with the Devils). I’m just getting in on the forecheck and creating havoc, going in front of the net and parking myself right there, at the edge of the crease. That’s something I knew I definitely had to do.
I asked what prevented him from doing so as a Canadien, since Michel Therrien constantly pleads with his charges to go to the net, that's where goals are scored. I gave specific examples of the head coach doing precisely, specifically that, enjoining his players to go to the net, instead of trying fancy passing plays.
My question for the learned folks here is, did anything in the Canadiens' vaunted/cursed system prevent Devo from doing this while he was here? I'm not being glib or trolling anyone, I'm asking an honest question, looking for some analysis.
HockeyInsideOut member 'Phil C' wrote a long, cogent analysis and dissection of our system compared to the Devils. With his (tacit) approval, I've linked his entire post, but list here the main points he brought up and supported with video clips:
1. Carrying the puck across the blueline vs carrying it in.
2. Poor net drive/Perimeter play.
3. (Poor) Cycling the Puck.
He and I agree that his current explosion is a blip in performance that is unsustainable, is too small a sample size (7 goals and 3 assists in nine games) to draw definite conclusions from. I'm persuaded by his post that there are system and roster differences in both teams that partially explain his greater success on the scoresheet so far.
But it nags at me that the quote that kind of twigged me, that kind of stuck in my craw a little, where he says he parks himself in front of the net and that's where he's going to be successful, it's kind of baffling, since that's what I'd yell at him to do through my magic Panaphonics screen, to go to the front of the net, to battle with opposition d-men and keep them busy, create space, and he did so very rarely.
So I've been digesting this, and eventually circled back to an article from earlier this season, where he confessed that the Canadiens' system was a little alien to him, where he was asked to not necessarily finish his checks but rather chase the puck:
“I’m just getting on the puck and not necessarily going for the big hit all the time. I’m trying to get my stick in there and create turnovers. That’s something that, before I came here, I wasn’t told to do,” offered Smith-Pelly, who joined the Canadiens last February in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. “I was always told to run guys right through the boards. I was never told to do anything else.”
I've mentioned this often in posts, how that philosophy largely explains why we get outhit in the stat sheet regularly, although sometimes it's galling when a bigger player like Jacob de la Rose flies by a player who himself has been pretty generous with the hits and crosschecks and elbows, who should be made to pay back a little bit.
But another quote caught my eye:
“Our speed is a big part of our success. We’re doing everything we can to make it hard for other teams to break out clean and create offensive chances. That’s how we’re being asked to play, and I think we’ve been doing a really good job. Those two other guys [Mitchell and Flynn] are really fast. If you dump it in, they’re going to get in there and make it hard for defensemen to make a clean pass,” explained Smith-Pelly, who has one assist so far this season. “We’re all a little different, but at the same time, it matches perfectly. I’m just going to go to the front of the net. If they’re looking for me, that will be the first place they’ll look. Those are two speedy guys. We’re just reading each other perfectly. We matched well together right away.”
At the start of the season, we saw a slimmer Devo being more limber and more noticeable on the ice. But as the season progressed, he kind of blended in, to the point where at the end of some nights you wondered if he played, if he was in the lineup. He was actually healthy-scratched a couple of times.
Some have brought up that he was injured partway through the season; Michel Therrien did so when he was asked about Devo's explosion in New Jersey, that his injury set him back and he struggled to get back on track after. He missed games starting in late November with a 'lower-body injury'. So I'll attribute some of his ineffectiveness to that.
But mainly, I notice how he said the same thing then that he's saying now in NJ, about crashing the net and using his size to screen goalies.
And it sticks in my craw. When he was acquired last season, it caused a hue and cry among Montréal fans who were sore about losing Jiri Sekac in the deal, but I pleaded for patience, I stuck up for him. It hurt to lose Jiri, but I always had my eye on Devo, was jealous that the Ducks at nabbed him in the second round and he played in the NHL at 19, he was a find, I thought.
I explained often that he was a right-shot right-winger, which we needed, a young player with potential, and that we needed his skillset more than Jiri, all things considered. We needed his thumping amongst our forwards, his ability to push back against other big opponents, with our relatively light complement of forwards.
And he never quite delivered. He seemed uninvolved. Not personally, since he mostly said all the right things, seemed to mesh well within the team. Not as uninvolved as Michael Ryder in his second stint here, not as uninvolved as Thomas Vanek hiding in the stick rack against the Bruins in the playoffs, but playing desultorily. Invisibly. When Marc Méthot was facewashing one of ours, the best we could expect was that Devo might grab a Senator and hang on, which left me wanting a little more snarl, more of a message sent.
And about saying all the right things, he actually uttered a headscratcher when he claimed to the reporters that he didn't know why he was being left out of the lineup, during his healthy scratches. Michel Therrien, when asked the same question, tersely replied that Devo needed to be responsible defensively, and more involved physically. It oughtn't have been that much of a puzzler for Devo.
So I'm going to let this go, but I'm going to be a little frustrated with Devo, that he didn't do here what he's embracing in New Jersey, that he didn't keep his word about being the bigger guy who'd be found in front of the net on his line. I'll give him partial dispensation that he didn't quite fit the system here, that NJ may be better for him, but going back to that October quote, seeing that, it's going to make me a little bitter.