By Steve Lichtenstein
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Ray Shero could strike oil in Rockland County.
In his first season as Devils general manager, Shero has shown an uncanny ability to unearth worthy gems amongst the rubble at the bottom of other NHL rosters.
As for the stiffs he inherited from the past regime, well, I trust that Shero will start weeding them out in due course.
But what Shero has done on a relatively low budget this season has been impressive.
Winger Kyle Palmieri never registered more than 14 goals or 31 points in his five seasons in Anaheim. The Devils leading scorer this season (25 goals, 46 points) was acquired by Shero over the summer for a pair of draft picks.
Palmieri took over the team lead from Lee Stempniak, who was signed off of a training camp tryout at a bargain price and was shipped to Boston at the trade deadline to recoup some of the lost picks. Defenseman David Schlemko, who leads all Devils defensemen with six goals and 19 points, was also a minimum contract free agency signing.
Shero’s latest find is left winger Devante Smith-Pelly. Dealt by Montreal at the Feb. 29 trade deadline for Devils 2012 first-round bust Stefan Matteau, Smith-Pelly was certainly not expected to set the Prudential Center on fire. After all, his NHL totals in his first four seasons were just 15 goals and 28 assists in 149 games.
Sometimes, though, all certain players need is an opportunity to shine. Though Smith-Pelly was near tears in his exit interview with the Montreal press, the trade to New Jersey has proven to be a jump start to his securing a permanent home in the league.
Smith-Pelly scored twice and had an assist in New Jersey’s 7-4 home victory over Minnesota on Thursday, giving him six goals and three assists in the seven games since the swap. (Matteau, it should be mentioned, has produced just one assist in his six games as a Canadien.)
“When I first came (to New Jersey), I was pretty confident in my ability,” Smith-Pelly said. “I obviously didn’t think it would be a goal per game, but I’m confident in my ability to contribute offensively. Right now, it’s going better than I thought.”
Devils coach John Hynes said he is not surprised that Smith-Pelly turned out to be a diamond in the rough.
“Before you make trades,” Hynes said, “you do research on guys. I’ve had the opportunity to coach against him (in the AHL). The way he’s played now is what I remember when I had to coach against him. It’s just whether he was going to take advantage of his opportunity and he is.”
Smith-Pelly is your typical hard-nosed Devil — most of his goals have come from the dirty areas around the opposition’s net.
“(Smith-Pelly) gets to the right areas,” said linemate Adam Henrique, who also found the back of the net twice on Thursday to tie Palmieri with 25 goals. “He gets to the front of the net and is playing great right now. We’re finding some good chemistry.”
Smith-Pelly’s persistent effort to backhand a loose puck in the crease gave New Jersey a 1-0 lead just 43 seconds into Thursday’s game. His other goal came off of one of many Wild turnovers in their own zone. With the Devils ahead, 3-1, early in the second period, winger Tyler Kennedy stole the puck from Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba behind the net and immediately found Smith-Pelly in front. Smith-Pelly had time to move across the crease before beating Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who had relieved bumbling starter Devan Dubnyk in the first period.
Smith-Pelly wasn’t credited with a point on perhaps the Devils’ most important goal of the game, but he was absolutely instrumental in its creation.
After the Wild scored their second power play goal of the game — both thanks to John Merrill penalties — to cut their deficit to 4-2, Smith-Pelly crunched Minnesota defenseman Marco Scandella in the right wing corner, forcing a turnover. New Jersey’s Joseph Blandisi intercepted the hurried pass and cut into the slot before feeding a wide-open Henrique across the crease for an easy tap-in with less than eight minutes remaining in the second period.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of a player playing through adversity,” Hynes said. “This is Devante’s third organization. He’s playing to his strengths and understands what he needs to do.
“When he came in we talked about being strong below the tops of the circles, being a strong net-front presence and being willing to skate and work. And he’s done all those things and now you’re starting to see a talented player getting rewarded.”
Though the Devils have won three of their last four games, they likely won’t get rewarded at the end of the regular season. They are still six points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 11 games to go. Just as troubling, their rivals all have as many or more games remaining.
Even so, there’s no denying that this season has been a step in the right direction. Give Shero another summer and some salary cap room to add pieces and who knows? Maybe the Devils will be going for gold sooner than many thought.
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