WEATHER ALERT

Blame it on Bowness

D-man DeMelo among Jets playing better than ever under new coach

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PITTSBURGH — The brightest stars tend to get the most ink, and deservedly so. The likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and, now that he’s back from injury, Nikolaj Ehlers, are all dazzling on the ice.

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PITTSBURGH — The brightest stars tend to get the most ink, and deservedly so. The likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and, now that he’s back from injury, Nikolaj Ehlers, are all dazzling on the ice.

All six of those Winnipeg Jets are on track, or would be on pace, for career years in various categories. They’re a major reason the hockey club is a stellar 28-14-1 as they prepare for a quick one-game “homestand” on Sunday night against Arizona before hitting the road for five straight.

But don’t discount key contributions from various so-called depth players who have stepped up in a major way this season.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Dylan DeMelo (2) on the first day of training camp in 2022.

Oh, hello there, Dylan DeMelo.

Yes, THAT Dylan DeMelo, the stay-at-home defencemen who often goes unnoticed for his safe, smart style of play that typically doesn’t show up in many statistical categories. But with a pair of assists on Friday night in Pittsburgh, along with his usual rock-solid work in his own end in a 4-1 victory, DeMelo is quietly on his way to establishing new personal benchmarks as well.

With 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 39 games, the 29-year-old from London, Ont., has already surpassed the 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) he had in 76 regular-season games last year. He’s also on the top shutdown pairing with All-Star Morrissey on a Jets team that has the fifth-lowest goals-against-average in the NHL this year.

DeMelo, whose career high is 22 points, is yet another example of how players are thriving under new head coach Rick Bowness and the various systems he’s put in place that have the Jets flying high.

“It’s something I’ve tried to grow in my game, be more offensive,” DeMelo said Friday night in the visitor’s dressing room at PPG Paints Arena.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine (29) can’t get past Ottawa Senators’ Dylan DeMelo (2) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg at a 2019 game.

“Our coach has done a good job. I think our system allows for that a little bit more. I took initiative to have that mindset to go after it a little bit, put myself out there instead of staying back and playing a little more reserved. Obviously playing with some really good players like Josh. You give it to our skill guys, they’re going to make things happen.”

DeMelo’s second helper of the night, a beautiful pass to Scheifele for a blistering one-timer in the third that put the game to bed, was the 100th point of his career.

“It’s something that as I get older here, something I can continue to grow in my game and try to help us out there,” he said of striving for more. “I’ve done a good job in my career of being a defensive guy. I’m trying to be a guy that can also be offensive and a guy that they can trust to put out there down a goal and things like that.”

Scheifele, who leads the team with 26 goals (his career high is 38) is loving what he sees from the guy known as “Smoke” to teammates.

“He’s worked at (his offensive game). I think that’s what no one sees. The effort he’s putting in,” said Scheifele.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Calgary Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk (19) is checked by Winnipeg Jets’ Dylan DeMelo (12) during a 2020 game.

“He’s doing video, before practice, after practice, all that stuff. It doesn’t just come. It comes with a lot of hard work and I think that’s what you’re seeing here. He’s working at it, he’s thinking about it, and he’s conscious of it and each day, he’s wanting to get better. A guy does that, he gets rewarded, and I think he’s only going to keep working at it and get better and better from here.”

Drafted in the sixth round (179th overall) by the San Jose Sharks in 2011, DeMelo played three seasons in the Bay Area, then a year-and-a-half in Ottawa before he was obtained by Winnipeg at the 2019 trade deadline in exchange for a third-round draft pick.

It was a shrewd, under-the-radar move by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff as he tried to rebuild a blue-line that had lost numerous staples since the 2018 run to the Western Conference final, including Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov.

DeMelo now has 436 NHL games under his belt, with the last 177 and counting coming with the Jets. What he’d really like to do is start adding to his playoff games, which sit at just 19 so far.

“It’s honestly just a mindset for us. When we’re willing to buy in and play that way, we’re a tough team to beat. It’s quite evident,” DeMelo said of the effort against the Penguins. “When we all buy in and play that type of style, a style we think is going to win later on in this season and hopefully in the playoffs, that’s a tough style to go up against. We know what it’s like going up against teams like that. If we can continue to do that day in and day out, we’re going to do a real good job here.”

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Dylan DeMelo (2) checks Seattle Kraken’s Ryan Donato (9) in front of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during a 2021 game.

Given the positive result, DeMelo was able to chuckle at himself for an unfortunate first-period blooper in which he was trying to defend a Pittsburgh two-on-one rush, only to watch helplessly as he stepped on his own stick and knocked it out of his hands. Drew O’Connor scored on the play, the only shot to beat backup goalie David Rittich.

“It’s a weird play. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my stick, stepped on, on a 2-on-1. I was kind of in no man’s land there,” he said.

DeMelo and his teammates ultimately got the last laugh, containing Pittsburgh’s big weapons, including Sidney Crosby, who was held without a shot.

“We’ll take that, for sure. That doesn’t happen too often. He’s one of the best players of all time,” said DeMelo.

Winnipeg defencemen have already combined for 111 points this year (25 goals, 86 assists) which has them among the league’s best in that category. DeMelo is third on the blue-line in scoring, behind Morrissey (career-high 47 points) and Pionk (19, including a career-high seven goals)

“He’s a smart player. He’s a veteran,” Bowness said of DeMelo. “They all know what we expect of our D. We expect our D to be a big part of our offence moving forward – in the transition, in the o-zone, and moving the puck out of our zone. That’s what we demand out of all them.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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