Despite playing significantly less minutes last year for the Winnipeg Jets, for some absolutely weird reason, it was another outstanding year for Dylan DeMelo.
It didn’t matter what role he was asked to play. Whether it was helping ease Logan Stanley into the NHL on the 3rd pair, playing up on the top pair with Morrissey, or locking things down on the penalty kill, DeMelo was unmatched by any other defenceman on the Jets. You certainly could argue Neal Pionk was the better defenceman last year, but within the specific roles DeMelo played, DeMelo was the best at them.
Defensively, DeMelo is very good at reading where the play is going and breaking up those plays. Whether it was breaking up a zone exit attempt, stepping in front of a pass in the neutral zone, or breaking up a play in the defensive zone, DeMelo stopped so many plays before they even had a chance to turn into a dangerous scoring chance. Beyond preventing chances against, this created more possession for the Jets and allowed their offensive players to go to work.
People often have this idea that defencemen need to be big, and that clearing the front of the net is the most important thing for a defenceman in his own zone. DeMelo shows that this isn’t the case, and while clearing the net front is generally a good thing, breaking up the play before the opponent even has a chance to make a play into a dangerous area is preferrable. This has benefits beyond preventing chances, such as extra puck possession which leads to additional offence, and this is reflected in DeMelo’s results.
DeMelo has never been a great transition player, and I don’t think he was last year either, but he’s good at getting the puck to a teammate with a quick pass who can then exit the zone and start a transition play. I think putting him with a really good transition defenceman would enhance his impact further.
Ultimately with the impact DeMelo had on the ice, and probably a bit of luck, he ended up 29th among NHL defencemen in Evolving Hockey’s wins above replacement. In expected wins above replacement, DeMelo ranked 95th. I think his true impact was somewhere in the middle as somewhere between a passable number 2 and a strong number 3 defenceman. The play I saw from him last year certainly lines up with those results.
Going forward, based on the Jets’ acquisitions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt, I think it’s likely we’ll see DeMelo start on the 3rd pair with Logan Stanley. I don’t necessarily think this is the worst idea despite him clearly being a legitimate top 4 guy. Neal Pionk is likely the team’s number 1 defenceman going into this season, and I believe Dillon will be a great fit as Pionk’s partner. I also think, despite the fact that DeMelo was the best partner for Josh Morrissey last year by a country mile, there’s a chance Schmidt is a better stylistic partner for Morrissey as a guy who at his best is great in transition and very good offensively. This is something we haven’t seen in any of Morrissey’s partners since the departures of Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien.
I believe DeMelo is the best guy to have as the partner for whomever the left defenceman is on the 3rd pair. We know he had good results no matter who he played with last year, and that bodes well considering we may see a number of different players in that spot depending on what happens with injuries, and whether or not they want Ville Heinola to see significant action. Because of that, if a Morrissey-Schmidt pairing could produce similar results to a Morrissey-DeMelo pairing, the best spot for DeMelo might actually be on the 3rd pair. With that said, if the Morrissey-Schmidt pairing struggles out of the gate, which would not surprise me, the Jets need to be ready to make quick changes by dropping either Morrissey or Schmidt down from the 2nd pair, and giving DeMelo the spot in the top 4 we know he can succeed in.
At any rate, I expect DeMelo to continue to have a strong impact on 5 on 5 possession like he has in recent seasons, and I expect him to be strong on the penalty kill. He should be a good player for the Jets next year.