At first blush, it's a curious decision. The defensively challenged Winnipeg Jets, desperately in need of a blue-line makeover, have chosen to risk losing arguably their most responsible rearguard in Dylan DeMelo to the expansion Seattle Kraken.
I saw condemnation coming fast and furious on Sunday from armchair general managers across social media, with some going so far as to suggest leaving the 28-year-old unprotected should be a "fireable offence." The rhetoric was so over the top in some cases, you'd have thought the Jets had just tied a can to Bobby Orr in his prime.
Goaltender and forwards were easy. Connor Hellebuyck was a no-brainer to protect, and there was never a doubt the Jets would shield captain Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, a restricted free agent who needs a new contract this summer. (No, Wheeler was never asked to waive his no-trade clause so he could be exposed in order to protect Mason Appleton).
Josh Morrissey and another RFA in Neal Pionk were the obvious picks on defence, leaving just one slot left in the 7-3-1 format. That ultimately went to Logan Stanley, the hulking 23-year-old who announced his presence in a major way this past year. And so DeMelo, armed with impressive analytics and a team-friendly contract which will pay him US $3 million over the next three seasons, tops the list of Winnipeg players available to Seattle during Wednesday night's expansion draft, a development nobody would have predicted just a few months ago.
We'll have to wait a few days to hear from Kevin Cheveldayoff — he's not slated to speak publicly until Thursday — but it's not hard to imagine the talking points the Jets architect will present when it comes to the most controversial choice he had to make. Whether you love it or loathe it, the bottom line is this follows the blueprint the organization has established from Day 1: draft and development.
In the case of Stanley, they weren't willing to bail on a first-round pick (18th overall in 2016) that they have spent the past five years investing in. Certainly not after the impressive rookie NHL season he just completed, where the 6-7, 228-pounder carved out a regular, albeit somewhat sheltered, role with the club and quickly became a favourite among many fans, along with his teammates.
Winnipeg believes they've only started to scratch the surface on Stanley's potential. The RFA, who made a base salary of $832,500 last year, brings an imposing physical presence and touch of nastiness that has been in short supply, which the organization clearly feels would have made him attractive to a first-year franchise such as Seattle. Stanley had a goal and three assists in 37 regular-season games, including a team-best plus-13, and added two goals and an assist in eight playoff games.
As for DeMelo, acquired from Ottawa in a 2020 trade in exchange for a third-round draft pick, they believe they already know his ceiling. The stay-at-home defender had a bit of a rocky start to the 2021 campaign before settling in — first as Stanley's primary partner, then ultimately with Morrissey on the top-pair. They were terrific in a first-round playoff sweep of Edmonton, where Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were mostly held in check.
It's likely not a coincidence the Jets struggled mightily against Montreal in the second round after DeMelo suffered a groin injury in the opening minutes of Game 1. As much as Scheifele's suspension stung, losing their shutdown defencemen right off the hop left a major mark, too. No, there's not much offence there, with no goals and nine assists in 57 combined games, but that's not his role.
The Jets were hardly alone in having to make difficult choices when it comes to their expansion lists. Just look at the players available to Seattle for a glimpse of that. Goaltenders Carey Price, Jonathan Quick and Braden Holtby, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene and Max Domi, and defencemen Mark Giordano, P.K. Subban, Kevin Shattenkirk, Erik Johnson and Brenden Dillon are just a few of the big names (and big salaries) that will be available to the Kraken.
There's no question Stanley over DeMelo has the potential to backfire, or at least bring some additional short-term pain around here. But judging Winnipeg's decision in a vacuum right now is a pointless exercise. First of all, there's no guarantee DeMelo gets picked Wednesday. Perhaps Appleton, three years younger and $2.1 million cheaper, will be enticing enough to Seattle, making all this angst much ado about nothing.
Could the Jets already have a side deal in place to ensure that happens? There were rumblings over the weekend Winnipeg was looking to move Appleton, which wouldn't make any sense in my eyes unless his ultimate destination is, in fact, Seattle. Maybe Cheveldayoff throws in a sweetener — a draft pick and/or Sami Niku, anyone? — to convince his counterpart, Ron Francis, to make such a move.
There was a flurry of NHL trade activity prior to Saturday afternoon's roster freeze as teams scrambled to try and mitigate the pain, and I expect there will be more this coming week. As we saw with the Vegas expansion draft, some teams actually end up digging even bigger holes for themselves in the process.
The Jets, for example, swapped first-round draft spots with the Golden Knights for them to overlook unprotected defenceman Toby Enstrom and take UFA forward Chris Thorburn, who they had no intention of signing. Vegas used that pick to select centre Nick Suzuki, who they later flipped to Montreal for Max Pacioretty. Meanwhile, Winnipeg grabbed Kristian Vesalainen with their lower selection. All of which should have Cheveldayoff treading very carefully.
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Even if DeMelo is the chosen one, we'll have to wait and see what the Jets then do with the salary they save when it comes to either free agency or trades this summer. With Derek Forbort, Tucker Poolman and Jordie Benn all pending unrestricted free agents as of July 28, revamping the blue-line was already priority No. 1. This is a club that, even with the steady DeMelo, still gave up way too many shots and scoring chances, all-too-often relying on Hellebuyck to bail them out and their high-end forwards to outscore their problems.
Building around Morrissey, Pionk and Stanley, along with young prospects such as Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, should be the primary focus going forward. And not just landing a fringe player or two, but a real pillar. Someone like Ryan Ellis, who Philadelphia just went out and traded for, would have been a perfect fit. As for what's still out there, UFA Dougie Hamilton would sure look nice in a Jets jersey, wouldn't he?
Because if Winnipeg's defence, with or without DeMelo, remains an issue when the puck drops next season, then Cheveldayoff will have failed to address a major need, wasting a Vezina-calibre goaltender and an offensively-gifted forward core in the process.
And that would certainly be cause for condemnation. Perhaps even a fireable offence.
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.