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Who’s a fit on Jets’ blue line? Hello, DeMelo

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The Winnipeg Jets face another trying off-season to stay competitive in the NHL’s Western Conference and provide goalie Connor Hellebuyck with more help from the skaters in front of him. 

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2020 (898 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Jets face another trying off-season to stay competitive in the NHL’s Western Conference and provide goalie Connor Hellebuyck with more help from the skaters in front of him. 

The Jets struggled during the 2019-20 season on the defensive side of the puck, losing Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, and, to a lesser extent, Ben Chiarot, in one fell swoop. However, the team does have some level of flexibility to address those concerns prior to puck drop for the 2020-21 campaign.

Unlike the summer of 2019 when the Jets needed to make big financial decisions on Trouba and scoring wingers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, the only restricted free agent due for any kind of significant raise is forward Jack Roslovic. There’s no way he negotiates big money like the others did.

Some care needs to be taken for new contracts for Laine, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk in 2021, but the Jets have some cap room to work with and roster spots to fill with many unrestricted free agents on the roster.

Codie McLachlan / The Canadian Press files Jets defenceman and trade-deadline acquisition Dylan DeMelo, right, is an unrestricted free-agent this summer.

With Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor, Lowry and Copp forming the core up front, the Central Division squad doesn’t require help there, although Bryan Little’s injury concerns do create a need for some centre depth.

In an ideal world, Roslovic’s overall game takes a huge leap forward and he moves into a second-line centre role — but we’ll see how Winnipeg looks up the middle down the road.

The primary objective for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is to create a new-look defence, and there are some good options available. For the next few weeks, I’ll review some players who could fit the bill.

The blue-liner who makes the most sense is one the Jets already know well: trade-deadline acquisition Dylan DeMelo.

DeMelo is a 27-year-old defensive defenceman who is unlikely to be too expensive, despite being a surprising driver at even strength. Head coach Paul Maurice made it clear several times after the trade that he was pleased with DeMelo’s contribution to the club, so if it’s a fit for the coach it makes sense to extend the relationship, if the player is interested.

But before going too far, does DeMelo address the specific defensive weaknesses the Jets dealt with this season?

Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic is the only restricted free agent due for any kind of significant raise this summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Let’s break it down by looking at metrics that are expressed as percentages, and see how much better or worse DeMelo was compared to the Jets’ average.

It’s not all positive across the board, as DeMelo struggled to move the puck in the neutral zone slightly more than his teammates. But, when analyzing areas where the Jets rank bottom-five in the NHL at even strength in metrics expressed as percentages, DeMelo appears to be a huge improvement.

One area the Jets had trouble with this season was turning opposition dump-ins into defensive-zone exits, often getting bogged down by opposing forechecks and, eventually, surrendering extra scoring chances while struggling to move the puck cleanly. Almost every area of big weakness listed on the graph is related to that whole cycle of despair.

After picking up loose pucks, Jets defencemen failed on simple ‘D to D’ passes more often than every other team in the league aside from the hapless Ottawa Senators, DeMelo’s former employer.

Those failed passes often became turnovers, leading to recoveries that did not become easy exits. Even when the Jets moved the puck after recovering dump-ins, their zone-exit success rate was among the league’s worst, adding to those turnovers and putting their defence structure on its heels too often.

DeMelo played in a similarly broken system in Ottawa most of the season, and demonstrated excellent work. No regular on the Jets came close to his 86.4 per cent ‘D to D’ pass success rate, for example. He doesn’t directly add much offence, but he’s a stabilizing presence where the Jets are weakest.

But what about frequency plays? How often is DeMelo playing the puck? How much impact does he have?

DeMelo, a product of London, Ont., taken late in the 2011 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks, adds a stretch-pass element that is lacking on the Jets blue line, and that helps players like Scheifele and Ehlers, who like to attack with speed off the rush.

On the defensive side of the puck, it might not seem like a big deal. But the difference seen with DeMelo on the ice compared to the Jets’ average in inner-slot shots against is the difference between a 30th-place team and a fifth-place team defensively.

DeMelo doesn’t have as strong of an impact on slot passes against, but the Jets do move from the equivalent of a last-place team to a 26th-place team in allowing those while he’s on the ice, which is still a positive.

Clearly, based on the result from the qualification-round loss to the Calgary Flames, DeMelo is not the cure-all for everything that ails the Jets defensively, but he could be a key part of the solution going forward.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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