The eminently quotable Paul Maurice referred to Dylan DeMelo’s first game as a Winnipeg Jet as pure "coach’s porn." Frankly, I don’t think it should be surprising to anyone that Maurice loves the addition of the 26-year-old defenceman.
You could be forgiven for thinking that DeMelo’s zero goals this season indicate that he’s been struggling a bit. He really doesn’t bring much offence directly and you shouldn’t expect him to. However when I saw this trade and how little the Jets gave up to acquire him, I was shocked at the value Kevin Cheveldayoff was able to extract here — especially considering the returns inferior and older defencemen in Marco Scandella and Brendan Dillon were able to bring in to their old teams.
Two seasons ago when DeMelo was acquired by the Senators in the Erik Karlsson trade, he was a player I felt would be an underrated part of the deal, as he was trending up rapidly as a strong defensive presence — and even though I was high on him, I didn’t expect him to be as strong as he has been since then.
Last season DeMelo was the top play driver overall among the Senators’ defensive core, with the caveat that he wasn’t facing the competition level that Thomas Chabot was. That level of performance alone would have been easily worth the third-round pick the Jets gave up in the trade this week to acquire him, but his on-ice impact this year is even better.
While DeMelo has been on the ice, the Senators have controlled shots from the inner slot at a rate more than 18 per cent better than when he’s on the bench. His raw differential in that area of 62.4 per cent of all inner-slot shots being in his team’s favour while he skating is the single top mark of any defenceman in the NHL this season.
That’s a crazy level of control over the flow of play, and though it’s not as strong, that control spreads out into the other areas of the ice as well, with DeMelo having better than a plus-eight per cent impact in shots on goal and better than a plus-six per cent impact in shot attempts. It’s no surprise that a defensive player such as DeMelo could cut down on shots and chances against, but what makes him so valuable is that he doesn’t do so at the cost of giving up offence.
In fact, while DeMelo has been on the ice this season, he has the highest rate of inner-slot shots for of all NHL defencemen. DeMelo isn’t the one directly driving those offensive results, but his defensive dominance allows his team to have the puck far more often and not fear making risky plays to create offence.
His dominance over shot control isn’t his only strength either, as he’s been one of the most impactful defencemen in the league on slot-pass differential, mostly by his defensive prowess once again, and his teammates spending more time in the offensive zone as a result.
One reason why Maurice was so enthusiastic about DeMelo’s performance is because he’s a bit of a throwback player. He’s aggressive in his defending style but he keeps it very simple, as well.
He’s not a hulking force out there on the back end, but he’s in the top five per cent of all defencemen in won puck battles, top 10 per cent in bodychecks that remove possession from opponents, top two per cent in stick checks that remove possession, top one per cent in neutral-zone defensive plays that remove possession and defensive-zone won puck battles, top 10 per cent in defensive-zone pass blocks and top five per cent in recovering defensive-zone rebounds.
Simply put, without the puck he’s an absolute force to be reckoned with in every way that not only stops offensive plays but also changes possession in favour of his team, leading to the offence when he’s on the ice without directly creating it.
With the puck on his stick, DeMelo isn’t an offensive threat at all, but he’s also not without value. He’s not a big shooter or playmaker, but in the defensive zone his simple approach leads to one of the lowest turnover rates in the NHL, and that occurred on a team with the second-highest overall turnover rate in the league in Ottawa.
Interestingly, the Jets have the third-highest turnover rate in the league with 17.5 per cent of all attempted plays leading to an opponent gaining the puck, so adding DeMelo should help significantly there.
Most of the time, DeMelo is going to distribute the puck to a superior puck-mover in the defensive zone, but when given a chance, he’s also been relatively adept at hitting long-bomb passes this year, solidly within the top 10 per cent of all defencemen in completed stretch passes, so he can contribute to some quick transitions, as well.
While DeMelo has started his tenure with the Jets paired with a more offensively focused player in Nathan Beaulieu, I think his eventual role will be to skate alongside Josh Morrissey, providing the kind of insulation Jacob Trouba contributed to get the best out of his D partner.
Shoring up the first pairing for the Jets would go a long way towards firming up their playoff aspirations. All that for a third-round pick.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.