This is a story about a kid from New Hampshire, an undrafted goaltender who worked his way to the NHL with the help of many, including a position coach he likes to call Buck and an ex-Navy Seal. Who had a major career disappointment at the start of 2019-20 and now, at age 29, is back to a good place – and back in the NHL.
If that sounds like a story about perseverance, then it’s understandable why Casey DeSmith is the Pittsburgh Penguins nominee this season for the annual Masterton Trophy.
The award, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, goes to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. One league-wide winner from the pool of team nominees will be announced at a later date.
DeSmith has served as Tristan Jarry’s trusty backup this season, going 11-7-1 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.54 goals-against average, plus two shutouts.
“It means the world to me,” DeSmith said of being able to return to the NHL and perform that well.
Two years ago, DeSmith served as the capable backup to Matt Murray, going 15-11-5 with .916 save percentage, 2.75 goals-against average and three shutouts.
The next fall, though, he was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League as the Penguins chose to use Jarry as Murray’s backup that season.
“The hardest and maybe the lowest point was right after (the 2019) preseason when I was told I was getting sent down after I thought had a really good year and I wasn’t really worried about potentially being sent down,” DeSmith said. “It was kind of a shock to the system a little bit.”
Still, he said he arrived on the far side of the state, back to the world of buses over cushy charter jets, with a positive attitude, something he attributes to having a good group of teammates, some of whom he had played with previously; to still being able to lean some on Penguins goaltending coach Mike “Buck” Buckley; and continued work with the person he calls his mental coach.
That mental coach would be T.C. Cummings of Noble Warriors Training, the aforementioned ex-Navy Seal. DeSmith called him “a continuous part of my life for my entire career” and said they have consultations weekly.
“The stuff I do with my mental coach is pretty (fluid), changing all the time, whether it’s different mantras, exercises that we’re doing,” DeSmith said. “It’s all about positivity and making the best of the situation that I’m in. Maybe I’m not the starter on the team, but trying to be the best teammate and bringing the most I can to the rink every day, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice, practice or a game, just kind of supporting guys around me, just staying positive.
“I think the positive mindset, just having fun at the rink no matter what I’m doing, that’s a big part of being able to persevere, even when things maybe aren’t going my way.”
Something worked. On a team that was just over .500 – there were no AHL playoffs a year ago because of the COVID-19 epidemic – DeSmith was 18-18-2 with a .905 save percentage and a 2.92 save percentage.
“Obviously, it’s easy to let doubt creep into my mind last year a little bit when I was sent down. … We had our ups and downs as a team, and me personally as well,” he said.
And yet he persevered. After Murray was traded to Ottawa last offseason, DeSmith was the presumed backup to Jarry. That’s how it worked out, although early in the season when Jarry struggled some there was a thought of bringing in a veteran goalie to push and help Jarry, which might have stepped on DeSmith’s position.
Jarry rebounded to have a strong season, and DeSmith is back in his good place.
“To come back up here and fit right into the team again right way and being able to contribute so much this year has been a real blessing,” he said. “With the condensed schedule I got to play more games as well because of all the back-to-backs and such. There’s a lot to like about this year.”
It’s unknown whether DeSmith will get his first sniff of an NHL playoff game this spring. He and Jarry both are nursing what are apparently minor injuries but are expected to be ready for the postseason. Teams normally ride their No. 1 goalie in the playoffs.
But DeSmith will carry on.
Persevere. It’s a word he believes describes more than his setback and comeback over the past couple seasons. It takes him back to playing in Indiana in the USHL, three seasons at the University of New Hampshire and then joining the Penguins organization. He split his first pro season, 2015-16, between Wheeling of the ECHL and Wilkes-Barre.
“I think I could apply it to most of my career, if not the whole thing,” DeSmith said. “Obviously, I had a unique journey in the path that I took to get here. I’m fortunate with how that path has taken me and to be here now. I feel very fortunate.
“I’ve come a long way since the first year of my pro career. I think perseverance has played a big part in that.”