For the upcoming expansion draft, the Winnipeg Jets will presumably protect three of Neal Pionk, Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, and Logan Stanley. Pionk and Morrissey are virtual locks to be protected. Whether Morrissey is worthy of a protection spot is certainly up for debate, but regardless, he will be protected.
Despite DeMelo being one of just two legitimate top four performers this year on the back end, it seems that Stanley is a more popular choice for protection among Jets fans and media.
Protecting Stanley over DeMelo doesn’t make a lot of sense, as DeMelo is one of two players holding the Jets’ defence corps together right now, and Stanley isn’t particularly likely to become an impact player in the NHL.
DeMelo’s impact and future
As I stated before, DeMelo performed very well for the Jets this season. He ranked 30th among all NHL defencemen in Evolving Hockey’s wins above replacement (WAR), and 96th in expected wins above replacement (xWAR). Over the past three years he ranks 19th among defencemen in WAR and 59th in xWAR.
Using this we can safely say that DeMelo’s performance this year was no fluke. He is a legitimate top four defenceman, has been for awhile, and has been on two teams. While I won’t go this far in terms of my thoughts on DeMelo as a player, one of these models even suggests he’s performed like a legitimate number one defenceman. I think he’s a passable number two and a great number three defenceman, and to say he’s a number one would be a big stretch. Nonetheless, a pretty valuable player.
Part of the reason DeMelo’s WAR exceeds his xWAR is due to the fact that over the last three seasons he’s had an on-ice shooting percentage of 9.31% at 5 on 5. Defencemen don’t tend to impact on-ice shooting percentage much, so xWAR, given that its baseline for offence is expected goals rather than goals, might be a closer measure of DeMelo’s true impact. Still, I don’t completely dismiss his WAR.
It’s also worth noting that per Evolving Hockey, DeMelo is the only defence partner Morrissey has had a break-even expected goals share with in either of the past two seasons.
DeMelo is 28 years old and has three years left on a steal of a contract at $3 million per year. He is at an age where some decline can be expected. With that said, it’s unlikely to be a significant decline, and in terms of shot impacts, the last two seasons have been the best of DeMelo’s career.
It’s not particularly common for players to peak in their late 20s, but it appears to be the case for DeMelo. He is a valuable piece going forward if the Jets are planning on contending, even if there is a small drop off in his play.
This is the type of player and contract that a team shouldn’t simply expose in an expansion draft unless they’re loaded at the position.
Stanley’s impact is more difficult to pin down at this point. He’s played extremely sheltered minutes to this point in the NHL with a reasonable amount of success. He actually ranked 3rd on the Jets behind DeMelo and Pionk, and 43rd in the NHL in WAR this season among defencemen. Unfortunately though, this is largely explainable by the fact that his on-ice shooting percentage at 5 on 5 was an unsustainable 11.05%.
A closer, but still fairly uncertain estimation of his impact, his xWAR, still ranked 4th among Jets defencemen, but 195th among NHL defencemen. This alone says quite a lot about the state of the Jets’ defence corps.
Stanley is 23 years old now, which is right around the age players tend to peak. That’s not to say it’s certain he’s hit his peak. The more accurate statement would be it’s not exactly probable that he will improve significantly from this point on. There is a possibility that he improves to the point where he’s an average, or above average NHLer, but I would venture to guess the chances aren’t great.
Top Down Hockey’s model for the probability of a prospect making the NHL (defined as 200 games played above replacement level), which factors in point production, the league(s) they’ve played in, age, height, and weight has Stanley at a 30.69% chance of making it. Top Down Hockey’s probability of Stanley becoming a star (defined as the top 18.5% of WAR per 82 games), which uses all the same factors, is at 0.11%.
While this model certainly doesn’t take everything into account, typically defencemen who produce like Stanley has don’t have great chances of becoming NHL regulars, and virtually none of them become star players. I will add that the one thing a lot of fans like to hang their hat on, Stanley’s size, is already factored into these results.
Stanley has already showed that he likely has at least some utility in the NHL going forward, but it’s more than reasonable to question whether he’ll play 200 games at a top 6 level in the NHL.
If the Jets are planning on contending in the next handful of years, Stanley isn’t the type of player they should be heavily investing in, or sacrificing a top four defenceman to keep. If the Jets’ vision of contending in the next few years includes having Stanley be a major contributor, that’s not a plan. That’s merely hope. Team’s don’t win Stanley Cups on hope.
What does the defence corps look like if DeMelo or Stanley are selected?
If the Jets expose DeMelo and he is taken by Seattle, that leaves the Jets extremely thin on defence, and now in addition to being weak on the left side, they would be weak on the right side.
The Jets would have Neal Pionk, and after that not a single right handed defenceman who’s even played an NHL game (well, besides Nelson Nogier, but that’s not an avenue anybody wants to go down).
Ville Heinola has played the right side at times throughout his career in Finland, but is likely best served on his strong side going forward.
Dylan Samberg played some games on the right side this year with the Moose, but I also believe he would be best served on his strong side.
Johnny Kovacevic had a pretty good year with the Moose, and could challenge for a spot on the Jets this year, but he isn’t going to jump into a top four role immediately, and there’s a pretty good likelihood he never develops into an NHL regular either.
The Jets would have to acquire a top four right handed defenceman via trade or free agency, and/or play one of Morrissey, Heinola, Samberg, or Stanley on their off side. Probably not a great scenario.
The depth chart on defence, if DeMelo is selected, looks something like this:
Morrissey-Pionk Heinola-Samberg Stanley-Kovacevic
Yikes. Morrissey and Pionk have spent limited time together over the past two seasons and they’ve seen pretty weak results, meanwhile every other spot on this depth chart is a question mark.
It’s easy to love the potential of Heinola, the defensive and transition ability of Samberg, and the emergence of Stanley and Kovacevic last year, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that every one of these guys struggles if they make the NHL next year.
If Stanley is selected, despite being a solid prospect with a decent chance at being an NHL regular, the Jets won’t look anywhere near as bad next year, even if they’re unable to pick up another defenceman.
There certainly will still be question marks, especially on the left side, but Jets fans can rest assured that in the worst scenario, they would still have a legitimate top four defenceman on each pairing in Pionk and DeMelo.
If Stanley is selected, the depth chart would look something like this:
Morrissey-DeMelo Heinola-Pionk Samberg-Kovacevic
We know the top pair can take on tougher competition and still break even in shot and expected goal shares. We know Pionk was able to carry Forbort to roughly even shot and expected goal shares, and we know Heinola has a lot of talent and probably won’t be worse than Forbort was last year. We don’t know what this third pairing will look like, but the good news is, there are a lot more good left defencemen available than right defencemen this offseason.
Asset management is a game of probability. There are no absolutes when talking about the how good a player is going to be in one, three, or five years. Just probabilities. Ultimately the probability of Logan Stanley being as good as Dylan DeMelo going forward is very low, and banking on the best case scenario rather than the most likely scenario is a recipe for disaster. Combining this with the fact that the Jets have available replacements on the left side, it is clear that the best decision going forward for the Jets is to protect Dylan DeMelo ahead of Logan Stanley.