Despite making a trade for forward Kasperi Kapanen, the Pittsburgh Penguins still have the biggest hole they must address going into the season: bottom-pairing defensive help. The Penguins third pairing was an absolute disaster the last couple of seasons and it was chief among reasons as to why they lost in the qualifying round. To start, Jack Johnson was an offensive black hole and was on the ice for virtually almost every goal the Canadiens scored. Justin Schultz wasn’t much better as he was also getting caved in shift after shift while providing no offense either.
Pittsburgh was paying that third pairing almost $9M between the two players and that’s just way too much money for a contending team to be paying two not-so-good defenceman. With Schultz walking and Johnson potentially on the trade block, it is essential the team has a functioning, cheap, third pairing going into next season. One of the options in free agency is Dylan DeMelo so let’s take a look as to why this would be a great fit.
Why Dylan DeMelo Makes the Most Sense for a Penguins Defensive Upgrade
He’s Not a Liability
DeMelo spent most of the season with the Ottawa Senators before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets. When the Jets went up against the Calgary Flames in the qualifying round, he was perhaps their best defenceman. According to Natural Stat Trick, in just a little over 65 minutes of ice-time against Calgary, his xGA (expected goals against) was 1.71. His xGF of 1.75 doesn’t look good (since the Jets aren’t a good offensive team), but he wasn’t allowing anything in his own zone when he was on the ice. He was also pushing the play offensively as his CF% was 55.14 percent throughout that four-game series. Even better, he was doing this while playing on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey.
Those numbers suggest he would be a monstrous upgrade over Schultz as he was outscored 5-2 at 5V5 when he was on the ice. Schultz also had a 28.57 GF% and a CF% of 46.2 percent which were all dreadful. Schultz was actively causing goals to be scored on Murray or Jarry as he was just an absolute tire fire in his own end. An example of this comes from a Jonathan Drouin goal in Game 3 of their qualifying round series (skip to around 3:20):
Schultz has one job to do there, by taking away Drouin’s stick and he couldn’t even do that. DeMelo wasn’t making those kinds of mistakes with the Jets in their series. Getting those plays right with someone like DeMelo out there would go a long way to getting the Penguins back to being contenders.
Term isn’t Needed
Jim Rutherford has never been shy about giving term to players via free agency. He did it for Jack Johnson and Brandon Tanev each of the last two offseasons. One of those signings isn’t currently hurting the team but term is often a killer in a lot of moves made around the league. In this case, DeMelo wouldn’t necessarily need it since he would be on the bottom pairing. When the Penguins won their two back-to-back Stanley Cups, they had a third pairing that was low on term and money. It was Ian Cole and Justin Schultz mostly in both years, while Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley also spent some time down there in 2017.
With DeMelo, he wouldn’t be commanding a lot of term since he hasn’t often been used in a top-pairing role. The ideal contract for the Penguins with him would be a two-to-three-year deal at a couple-million per season. It solves the term problem that Rutherford has been having and it also has it so the third pairing will be cheaper next season. Pittsburgh will also be moving some more salary out during this offseason so there would be more than enough room to make it work.
Dylan DeMelo Helps Make the Team Younger
After the Penguins lost against Montreal, Rutherford made it clear that he wanted to get younger and faster going into next season. DeMelo fits this bill to a tee as he’s still only 27 and he’s very quick up the ice, especially in transition. He also doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his tires (he has just 269 career NHL games played).
His offensive numbers still need to come up a bit but of his ten assists that came with the Jets, eight of them were at 5V5. In addition to that, during the 2018-2019 season while he was with the Senators, 14 of his 18 assists came at 5V5. His offensive production has just been getting better and better the longer he’s been in the league.
Pittsburgh’s window is rapidly closing but signing Dylan DeMelo will be a big step towards getting them back to being Stanley Cup contenders.