Sekac may not have had a lot of points, but he could keep up with the brutal defensive minutes on Lars Eller's wing, and his creativity and skill were refreshing to watch. Devante Smith-Pelly was going to have to fight an uphill battle no matter what -- unless he miraculously scored 20 goals playing defence-heavy minutes on the third or fourth line.
Unsurprisingly, he didn't. If that had been all, people probably would have gotten over it fairly quickly, especially since Sekac continued to play well, though he failed score much, or to find favour with Bruce Boudreau.
But that wasn't all. Smith-Pelly looked actively ineffective while not scoring 20 goals. Coming from a slower, rougher, tougher (though still skilled) Anaheim team to the quick, finessed game of the Canadiens, he looked (for lack of a better term) like a duck out of water.
The only thing he had going for him was his reputation as a playoff performer, and in the meantime, the reactions ranged from scepticism to downright hostility. He was "way too slow." He was out of shape. He wasn't skilled enough, et cetera, et cetera. His playoffs were nothing to write home about about, either. He had one goal and two assists in twelve games, averaging about twelve minutes a game. The only consolation was that Sekac played seven games, and had no points at all, playing beside future Hab Tomas Fleischmann.
Smith-Pelly came back in September pounds lighter, and miles quicker, something he'd been told to work on during the off season. He had a mediocre pre-season, but since the puck dropped against the Leafs, he's been a different player.
While he's not exactly racking up points, he had assists on three of Torrey Mitchell's five goals, and picked up a goal himself playing on what was arguably the best fourth line in the NHL. He also has two secondary assists on goals from Eller and Nathan Beaulieu while playing on the second line, and his point production is at a respectable 1.5 per 60 with heavier defensive deployment than he received in Anaheim.
There was even one game, a few weeks back, where he skated into the offensive zone carrying the puck with such speed and panache that I was convinced it was P.K. Subban. It wasn't, and it's become a fairly common sight. Smith-Pelly now regularly outraces his opponents, while still bringing the heavy-hitting, gritty game which Therrien is so fond of.
He might not have the raw talent to be a perfect fit with Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, or with Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, where he has found himself lately, but he certainly has the wheels to skate with them, and isn't as glaringly out of place, though his lack of finish often leaves something to be desired.
As one of a slew of Canadiens players to go down with injuries in the past week, Smith-Pelly looks to return with a bang, on a spot to the right of Pacioretty and Plekanec. In the daunting task of replacing Brendan Gallagher, the Habs are going to need Smith-Pelly to muster up all his newfound speed and find his scoring touch.
If he can do it, he'll have won that uphill battle.