Three years ago Casey DeSmith was riding the pine in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers.
It was DeSmith’s first pro season, and despite being a touted prospect in college, he couldn’t muster even a glance at the ECHL level, sitting out the first two months of the season despite being healthy and ready to go. By the end of the regular season, DeSmith appeared in just 13 games for Wheeling and six for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
He hasn’t forgotten about the difficult start to his pro career, nor does DeSmith take if for granted just how far he’s come, fresh off his third stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“This has been a long time coming, so yeah, it’s sunk in,” DeSmith said. “With every start I get it sinks in a little bit more.”
DeSmith joined the Pittsburgh organization as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2015. For a goaltender who began his career buried on the depth chart, DeSmith is now a stellar AHL goaltender and also a legitimate option for Pittsburgh when Matt Murray isn’t available.
After spending all of the last two seasons in the ECHL or AHL, DeSmith has been recalled to Pittsburgh three times this season, and during his most recent trip he availed himself well.
While Murray was out due to the death of his father, Pittsburgh rode the hot hand in net and turned to DeSmith. In five consecutive starts from Jan. 18 to Feb. 3, DeSmith won three and allowed two goals or less in three games.
“Getting to start some games was really awesome. It was almost two weeks of being in shock and awe, but at the same time feeling the spotlight and having fun,” DeSmith said.
He wrapped up the stint with a valiant effort, stopped 38 shots in a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils.
“That was a blast. You want to go out and win, but at the same time if I’m just going to lose a game I want it to be like that,” DeSmith said. “A lot of shots, a lot of action and a lot of big saves just to keep the team in the game.”
Still, DeSmith suspected that even though he was starting every night in Pittsburgh, his time was limited. He knew the Penguins would go back to Murray as their top goaltender.
And with Tristan Jarry playing well in Wilkes-Barre, Pittsburgh opted to switch goaltenders and send DeSmith down so he could keep playing.
Considering playing time was nearly non-existent at the start of his career, DeSmith is fine with the decision to return to the AHL to log more minutes in net.
“Nobody wants to sit on the bench for weeks and not play a game. That’s not good for anybody,” he said.
It also helps that DeSmith has risen on the organization’s depth chart and another trip to Pittsburgh seems inevitable.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to keep his game in order with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Doing so, DeSmith said, is crucial if he’s going to be successful again in his next trip to the NHL.
While it’s common for players to change their games to adjust to the NHL level, DeSmith said if he’s playing well in the AHL he’s not going to alter anything if he goes back to Pittsburgh.
“If you go up there and try to change the way you play, I don’t think that’s a good strategy,” DeSmith said. “I try to do things well in the AHL and trust that it will translate in the NHL.”
In order to achieve that, DeSmith needs to play on a regular basis, and unlike the 2015-16 season, playing time isn’t an issue anymore.
“When I wasn’t getting the starts that first season, I still knew I was a good goalie regardless,” he said. “You have to trust in the skills that you worked to develop your entire life.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky