CALGARY - Canada is about to fall in love with Devante Smith-Pelly.
Yes, when the puck officially drops on the world junior hockey championship next week, the 19-year-old loaner from the Anaheim Ducks is going to become an instant fan favourite.
It took less than two minutes Monday night for the power forward to introduce himself to the Saddledome fans, by way of a Finnish defenceman who got, well, finished off by the bruising winger.
Despite being listed at just 5-foot-11, the Scarborough, Ont., native is the second-heaviest player on Canada’s roster at 212 lb. Having battled with Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors head coach Dave Cameron for years over his weight, Smith-Pelly clearly has his conditioning and game in order.
Impressive and tough enough to start the season in Anaheim, Ducks GM Bob Murray worried the team’s struggles would hamper his development and opted to loan the second-round pick from 2010 to the Canadian program.
Following an impressive camp, he was handed the associate captain’s A for last night’s exhibition game and promptly led in every way possible.
“The message (from Anaheim’s management) was pretty much come here and have a big role,” said Smith-Pelly, destined to be known throughout this tourney as DSP.
“This season wasn’t going too great up there, and for a first-year guy, they didn’t want me to be around the negativity so they sent me here and said, ‘when you get back we’ll go from there.’ ”
With three goals and five points in 23 games as a 19-year-old rookie, things weren’t that bad. But Murray figured the experience the kid could gain in Alberta over Christmas was too valuable to pass up, while the Ducks continue to struggle. The Ducks pain was Hockey Canada’s gain.
“I don’t feel like (the Anaheim experience) was that negative — I was learning a lot of stuff and getting better every day,” said Smith-Pelly, who had 36 goals in Mississauga last year before exploding for 15 more in 20 playoff games.
“Obviously, it sucks to be losing a lot, but at the same time I was in the NHL and I was having fun. It wasn’t the end of the world.”
Perhaps his skillset was best summed up midway through the first period when he followed up a great scoring chance by hammering Finnish forward Miikka Salomaki to delight of an otherwise quiet Dome gathering.
While coach Don Hay mixed his lines most of the night, Smith-Pelly spent most of his time on what should be the top unit, alongside Mark Sheifele. While he’ll be counted on for his offence, he’ll also play a major role in establishing the intimidation factor Canada has used to its advantage throughout this tourney’s history.
After bowling over the third Finn of his shift midway through the second, he stood over his victim to hammer home a point his body just delivered — the Canadians will punish.
“He is extremely poised in his own zone with the puck. He will finish all checks with authority and his hands are very good in tight areas around the net,” Murray said last night while the Ducks lost again .
“A solid Canadian north/south player.”
Cut last year from the Canadian world junior team run by his junior coach, Smith-Pelly seems bent on ensuring whatever disappointments preceded this camp are behind him.
“Being one of the guys with NHL experience, I’m going to try to use that,” said Smith-Pelly, who joined Brett Connolly as Canada’s only NHL loaners.
“I think my game has improved leaps and bounds in the last couple of months. Just being around Teemu Selanne, (Ryan) Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry, guys like that, it’s hard not to get better.”
Hard also for Canadians not to love the style of play that goes with his delicious skillset.
“Ryan Getzlaf told me to go in there and be a leader, but don’t go in there thinking you’re better than anybody else,” he said. “Those were his words of advice and I’m going to listen to them for sure.”