The simple way to success
Jets D-man DeMelo has built career on basics
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Dylan DeMelo won’t show up on a highlight reel very often. Heck, you likely won’t see him on the stat sheet most nights.
That’s because the Winnipeg Jets defenceman has embraced a simple game throughout his career. It’s a style that’s allowed him to become a model of consistency for one of the best teams in the NHL.
DeMelo, or as his teammates call him, Smoke — he says he doesn’t know the nickname’s origins — grew up dreaming of 100-point campaigns and winning multiple Norris Trophy awards, as many kids do, but quickly realized he would need to hone a different part of his game once he arrived in the Show.
“I realized pretty quick when I was in San Jose that I was behind some really good defencemen. Brent Burns won the Norris, he’s got 80, 90 points, 30 goals,” DeMelo told the Free Press Saturday. “I played a little bit of power play there but I just kind of figured my role — I didn’t have the offence to be a point-per-game guy. So I realized, for me to get in the NHL, I’m going to have to be really defensively responsible, I’m gonna have to be a guy that coaches can trust, not have to worry about me.”
“I played limited minutes in San Jose but I think I earned the coach’s trust by playing that style. I went to Ottawa and I was able to grow more as an everyday player in a top-four role. I was able to play against other teams’ top lines and grow my offensive game … and then here, it’s kind of the same as Ottawa. I’ve had a great opportunity to play a lot of minutes, play alongside Josh (Morrissey), who’s really improved my game.”
Indeed, the 29-year-old blueliner has appeared to take another step in his third full season in Manitoba’s capital, eighth overall. DeMelo is averaging 19:23 of ice time, the most since the 2019-20 campaign, when he arrived in Winnipeg, and continues to be a mainstay on the top penalty-killing unit.
DeMelo’s plus-10 rating has tied a career-high while his 10 points in 35 games are on pace to smash a career-best, 22, set in 2018-19 as a member of the Ottawa Senators. His 12 this year are on pace to break the career-high 17 he set last season.
“I think it’s just knowing my game, knowing what works. I’ve been around a little and I know my limitations, I guess you could say. I know why I’m here, I know what got me to the NHL, I know what’s made me successful. I think sometimes where guys get in trouble is when they make the league, they play a certain way and they feel they have to change that style. Yes, you have to evolve, but I think you can’t forget where you came from,” he said.
On Saturday, DeMelo and the Jets (25-13-1) took to Canada Life Centre for an optional skate following Friday night’s 4-2 triumph over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team is back at the downtown rink Sunday for an early afternoon affair (2 p.m. puck drop) with the Vancouver Canucks (17-18-3), where Winnipeg will look to sweep the season series.
DeMelo’s steady presence on the ice can often be overshadowed by the likes of playing partner Josh Morrissey, a blueliner who has developed a knack for putting the puck in the net. Yet his contributions haven’t been lost on head coach Rick Bowness.
“When you have a player like (Josh Morrissey), who has high offensive abilities, high offensive IQ, you gotta make sure you have the right partner,” Bowness said. “It’s like (Cale) Makar and (Devon) Toews in Colorado. Toews is the perfect partner for Makar. Mel is the perfect partner for Mo, they read off each other, they’ve played together long enough.
“That chemistry in partners is absolutely huge, that they can read off each other, and that takes time to build. They have very strong chemistry.”
DeMelo and Morrissey aren’t the most physically imposing tandem in the league (DeMelo 6-1 194-pounds, Morrissey 6-0 195-pounds) but have formed a dynamic yin and yang, with the latter making major contributions offensively en route to an all-star nod while the former quietly remains a rock on the back end, stymieing the opposition’s top weapons.
The two haven’t always been tied during their time together in Winnipeg but appear to seamlessly pick up where they leave off each time they are paired on the ice. After the Jets struggled to find production from their defence earlier this season, Bowness went back to the reliable pair, which has once again reclaimed its chemistry.
“Sometimes there are fits and sometimes there aren’t, but I think with us, the style, the way we see the game, the way we move, it just works,” said Morrissey. “He just makes my job easy, I really enjoy playing with him. We talk a lot on the bench, we talk on the plane, we’re pretty good friends.
“It’s a good partnership to have. I think he’s a very underrated player in the league, doesn’t get the recognition for how good defensively he is and his all-around game. I think he’s having a great year.”
The Winnipeg Jets continued their string of good fortune at Saturday’s optional skate. Forward Saku Mäenalanen, who is working back from an upper-body injury suffered on Dec. 8, shed his red non-contact jersey for a bight blue jersey, which has historically signalled he’s nearing a return to the lineup.
Forwards Morgan Barron and Kevin Stenlund missed the optional skate with what Bowness called a “maintenance day.” Bowness said both will be available for Sunday’s tilt against the Vancouver Canucks.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.