Thursday, 17 March 2016

Stefan Matteau and Devante Smith-Pelly.

When we acquired Devante Smith-Pelly, it stung for this Canadiens fan, since I liked Jiri Sekac, I had bought in, I liked his backstory, I liked his size and speed, it showed even on my TV screen.  I had confidently predicted great things.

I understood the reasoning for the trade.  Anaheim needed a left-shot forward, a left winger, and had too many righties in their forwards.  They wanted someone who could potentially complement Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on their top line, someone better than Patrick Maroon, and also a little boost of speed, since many of their forwards were lumberers, built to battle heavy teams like the Kings and Sharks and Blues.

Meanwhile, Marc Bergevin needed to unclog the left side and beef up the right side of his forward corps.  And speaking of beef, he needed some added heft, someone to play a little more physically, and to add a little snarl, a little pushback.  So Devo was what the doctor ordered for our team too.  Good trade, like in "Dances with Wolves", both parties getting something they wanted by giving up something they didn't need as much.

Devo wasn't a throwaway in my eyes, a useless plug, a fourth-liner, a grinder as he was castigated on HIO, he was also a good prospect.  In my all-too-frequent perusals of past years drafts on HockeyDB, he stood out to me as the guy who played NHL games one year after being drafted, the only second-rounder to do so, ahead of most first-rounders outside of Taylor-Tyler.  At the time, I thought the Ducks had unearthed a steal, kind of like the Avalanche with Ryan O'Reilly or the Blackhawks with Brandon Saad, the high-second-round pick who plays in the NHL early in his career, who's effective, the diamond in the rough.

He didn't take to our team and system like a Duck to water though.  He struggled, was sat out a few games, and the coach explained he needed to work on his endurance.  Devo admitted as much, said that in Anaheim they wanted him to play heavy so he could battle along the boards.  He said that our system, which is predicated on puck pursuit rather than finishing your checks, was something he had to adjust to.

The latter half of his season was inauspicious: 3 points in 20 games, and another 3 points in 12 playoff games.  He did dish out a few hits, but wasn't the force in the corners and in front of the net that we would have liked.  We discovered he wasn't a guy who had a temper and would right our wrongs with his knuckles.

Over the summer, we expected him to trim down, be in a better condition to skate all night, be in better shape overall, and come back and prove what he was made of.  He accomplished that to some degree, he looked less jowly in camp, if not carved out of rock like modern NHL'ers.  He seemed to have extra spring in his stride.  Maybe it was hopeful confirmation bias, but he seemed faster on the ice, better able to keep up with the play.

Except that he still seemed inconsistent, at least, on some nights relatively invisible, still a step behind, and those nights became more and more frequent as the season wore on.  I asked, with concern, whether I was the only one noticing him slowing down rather than getting better and better as the season progressed.

Plus, with our relatively lightweight roster, de-Prustified and de-Kassianized, it didn't help that Devo wasn't the most aggressive of players:
He’s big and has potential, but he’s another ‘pacifist’, a guy who’ll not make eye contact with Mark Stuart when the going gets facewashy in front of the Jets’ net. With Lars Eller in the Winter Classic, and Jacob de la Rose against Tie Domi’s spawn, we have enough big players who won’t push back, who’ll look the other way, literally turn the other cheek. And with P.K. and Alexei Emelin getting under opponents’ skins but not able/willing to drop the gloves, that’s too many guys who won’t face off against a pugnacious opponent to give him the what for.

On a roster like we had in 2014, with Travis Moen, Brandon Prust, George Parros, Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon, we could have carried a Devante Smith-Pelly, a guy who'll get involved in scrums after the whistle, grab a guy and hold on, but not do much more than that.  Heck, on that type of roster, he might have felt his oats a little more, benefited from the facilitated aggression, been a little more adventurous once in a while, with the ample backup behind him.

But not on our current roster.  Devo is not quite the player we thought he was, the big bruiser with hands that can surprise you, who can develop into something, and who'll fit right into our team.  It's not quite that seamless a fit.

And I can't help but wonder about Devo's maturity level, whether he really understands how tenuous a hockey career is.  When he was a healthy scratch earlier this season, he expressed confusion about why he wasn't playing.  Meanwhile, the head coach, asked about this by reporters, tersely replied in ten seconds what we all knew, what Devo should have known, that he needed to play hard, be consistent, involve himself physically, be responsible defensively.  That Devo said he was confused about this showed disingenuousness, at the very least.

So before the trade deadline, with a dearth of assets to ship out in return for oodles of scrumptious draft picks, I threw Devo in the lot.  I had seen enough, I declared.  As much as I wanted him to flower, to explode, to become a bruising Top 6 winger, I cut bait.  How long had I waited for Benoit Pouliot, for RenĂ© Bourque, for Lucien DeBlois, for Perry Turnbull?  I wasn't going to be fooled no longer nohow.

Again, I'd seen enough.  And I wanted to stock up on draft picks.  I thought Devo and a fourth might get us a second.

Instead, we got what I thought was even better, Stefan Matteau, a promising but erratic former first-rounder who would add the toughness and snarl that Devo never did:
I floated the comparison yesterday to a Patrice Cormier or Charlie Coyle, a talented player who can put up points, but has size and strength and a screw loose. I’m normally predisposed to dislike these guys, once they start to raffitorres it out there, but generally a big tough mean player, like Sergio Momesso, Mike McPhee, Shayne Corson, they’re always welcome on our team. Because they’re ours, dammit.
I don’t know that Stefan can rack up the points like these guys, but if he has a livelier stick than Devo, and is more effective at throwing hits, and isn’t a pacifist, I’ll be very happy.
His contribution will be magnified because there are precious few guys on our team who can do what he does, be a menacing presence at forward, and will crosscheck back when Clayton Stoner starts gooning it up in front of the net. There being this bigger vacuum in our lineup for that kind of contribution, he can be that much more valuable.

In checking his points totals on HockeyDB, I kind of ratcheted down my expectations, despite the first-rounder status.  I figured if he provided some speed and energy and popped in 12-15 goals on the Bottom 6, that would be a good trade, in that Devo more often than not merely occupied a lineup spot but didn't make the most of it, was relatively invisible, contrary to guys like Paul Byron or Torrey Mitchell who overachieved, who often flashed and won games outright.

That was my take on the trade, and I was comfortable in my assessment.

That was before, however, Devo's current scoring outburst with the Devils, who now has six goals and three assists in seven games.  And before Monsieur Matteau was healthy-scratched a couple of times by a coach juggling spare parts, trying to squeeze rookies in his roster for experimental purposes.

I'm allaying my fears by reckoning that we know what Stefan Matteau will bring, he's secure as a roster member for next season.  He'd have to go through waivers, so that won't be an option, sending him to St. John's.  He'll be part of the team out of training camp next fall unless a trade or something unforeseen occurs.  We saw what happened this season with no Brandon Prust/Zack Kassian on the roster, and Greg Pateryn and Jarred Tinordi in the pressbox where they couldn't be of help.  Stefan will have a big role to play, in concert with others.  We will have pushback.

And Devo, well, good on him for his current success, maybe the change of scenery was the second swift kick in the rear he got, but the one that took.  Maybe he's more suited to the system they play in New Jersey.  Maybe he was never meant to be on a fast-break team, or had the stones to be the one heavy on a team.

I don't necessarily want him not to have success, but I'm a little green that it's happening on another team, that he didn't find the touch and expend the effort here, for the team which he cried for upon learning he was no longer a member of.  We could have used those goals last season in the playoffs Devo.  Or in December and January.

In context though, we're playing with found money.  The Jarred Tinordi trade really cut me deep, because we'd invested a first and a second-rounder to draft him, then years in developing him, waiting for him to hatch, all for naught.  For What-ley.

Devo came to us for Jiri Sekac, a player we signed as an undrafted free agent.  So we're flipping this found asset for Stefan, and he has some time to develop into a commodity.  No skin off our nose.

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