So there were the Anaheim Ducks, playing the pivotal swing game of their playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, relying on a goaltender, John Gibson, making his fifth NHL start, and a forward, Devante Smith-Pelly, who’d spent most of the year in the minors. Few NHL teams will put that much faith in their kids – and the kids are turning out to be more than just all right for the Ducks.
They are, in fact, becoming difference makers in their playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, which now stands 3-2 in Anaheim’s favour, thanks to a 4-3 win Monday night – a game keyed by the play of the aforementioned youngsters.
“Norfolk’s not happy,” was how Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau assessed matters, but Norfolk – the Ducks’ American Hockey League affiliate, which happened to get clobbered the same night with all their key players up in The Show – is going to have to muddle along without their top goalie and leading scorer, maybe forever.
“Those guys have come up and played such big roles,” continued Boudreau. “You look at [Monday night]: Gibson was the second star and Smith-Pelly the first star. Sami Vatanen is playing 20 minutes. The youth is really carrying us right now.”
This is Hollywood, or near enough to it, that the venues in the Freeway Series do conjure up images of the star-maker machinery.
Gibson may eventually be a leading man. He is 20, poised beyond belief, and just starting out. Teammate Teemu Selanne, who contributed the primary assist on the goal that put Anaheim ahead to stay, is 43. Selanne scored 76 goals as an NHL rookie around the time Gibson was coming into the world. One generation comes, another slowly recedes …
“He was talking about his mom being the same age as me and I almost punched him,” said Selanne, to laughs all around. “One of us is in the wrong place,” he added hastily, “and it’s not him.
“I’m so impressed, the last couple of years, when the young guys come into the league and they can dominate right away. It’s something new and amazing. It’s fun to see.”
Smith-Pelly, who roomed in the minors with Gibson, is known across Canada for his world junior contributions. Because of their organizational depth up front, he played in just 19 regular season games for the Ducks this past season, contributing 10 points, but spent most of the season in the minors.
He was the 42nd player chosen in the 2010 NHL entry draft, and likely will land in the NHL full-time next year as Selanne and perhaps others move on.
The Ducks like to work their players in gradually, in the same manner as the Detroit Red Wings, which is also why Gibson – for all his promise and pedigree – didn’t get a look until the end of the year, when an injury to Frederik Andersen, and the decision to trade away Viktor Fasth at the deadline, opened up a roster spot.
Smith-Pelly was trying to stay patient, knowing his time would eventually come.
“When I was in Norfolk, I tried to focus on Norfolk and make sure I did what I had to do to, not only get better, but to help the team win,” said Smith-Pelly. “There still is a season down there.”
But the Ducks keep him in the mix, as far as their plans – and expectations – for him.
“They let you know what you’ve got to work on and what your role is going to be when you get back up here. They gave me a list of things to work on when I went down. I thought the coaches down there helped me improve on those aspects and I came up and it was almost like I never left, I guess.”