There has been much talk about the upcoming expansion draft and who the Jets should protect and expose.
By the rules of the expansion draft, each team may choose to protect 7 forwards and 3 defencemen, or 8 total skaters. Each team may also protect one goaltender. The Jets will clearly go the 7/3/1 route.
I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss who the Jets should protect in goal. Laurent Brossoit is having an outstanding season and I don’t think they can afford to give up on that kind of play from their backup.
All jokes aside, the decisions for who to protect among their forward group would seem relatively straightforward at this point without the Jets extending any of their unrestricted free agent forwards.
The defence situation seems a little bit more foggy since the Jets have been rumoured to be interested in acquiring defenceman Mattias Ekholm, who is under contract for one more year beyond this one. People have also speculated that the Jets might look into protecting Logan Stanley and exposing Dylan DeMelo. This would be a big, unnecessary mistake.
Even if the Jets were to trade for a defenceman under contract beyond this season that they would have to protect, it couldn’t be more obvious who the three defencemen the Jets should protect are, and DeMelo is firmly in that trio.
Bryan’s protected list (based on no trades):
Forwards: Blake Wheeler (NMC), Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Mason Appleton
Defencemen: Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley
Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck
Unless the Jets extend Adam Lowry this offseason, there shouldn’t need to be much discussion for who the seven forwards the Jets protect should be. Mason Appleton has blossomed into a fantastic third line winger this season, and has shown flashes of being a guy that could potentially be effective higher in the lineup as well.
Andrew Copp, while having a bit more troubles driving play at 5 on 5 this year, has been a really good overall player for the Jets in his time here. He’s had stretches of high end defensive play, and earlier on this season he was part of one of the best offensive lines in the NHL with Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers.
The other five choices at forward couldn’t be more obvious for the Jets.
Where people may raise an eyebrow, is on defence, and specifically at my omission of Josh Morrissey in favour of Logan Stanley or Dylan DeMelo. Protecting Neal Pionk would look like a given at this point, as he has had an outstanding season which has been obvious to just about everybody. People have suggested to me that Stanley has looked good enough to protect, but that the player we should expose, rather than Morrissey, is DeMelo. My question is, why?
A look at Josh Morrissey
As per Evolving-Hockey’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model, which estimates a player’s overall on-ice impact relative to a replacement level player, Morrissey has been worth a total of -0.7 WAR. He has had an okay offensive impact, but an absolutely dreadful defensive impact. In fact, according to the model, he has had the very worst total defensive impact among NHL defencemen in that span. This is back to back years he has been struggling mightily.
Below is his charted Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus over the last three years from Evolving-Hockey, which estimates how well a player has driven goals for, expected goals (xG) for and against, as well as shot attempts (Corsi) for and against. On the left is even strength impact, and on the right is power play impact.
As we can see, including his last year with Jacob Trouba, the overall picture doesn’t look all that good. When Morrissey was playing well, the Jets had three aggressive defencemen who liked to carry the puck on the right side. Morrissey slotted in nicely as the safety valve on breakouts, where Trouba, and sometimes Byfuglien, whenever they were partnered, would handle the majority of the puck carrying duties. Now, while being partnered mostly with Tucker Poolman, Morrissey is being put in a primary puck moving role, which he clearly does not belong in.
The thing Morrissey has going against him going forward, even if we do think he could still be effective in the role he played beside Trouba, is none of the three defencemen the Jets have on the right side are great in transition and carrying the puck. Despite that, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo are showing that they are the strength of this defence corps, so they shouldn’t be going anywhere. Morrissey’s results with Dylan DeMelo have been passable but not great, his results with Pionk haven’t been good, and his results with Poolman have been that of one of the very worst defence pairings in the NHL.
A look at Dylan DeMelo
Dylan DeMelo has been one of the most underrated players in the league over the past couple of seasons. He rarely makes mistakes on the back end, he’s aggressive in the defensive zone breaking up plays, and he’s great at keeping plays alive in the offensive zone with perfect positioning. Despite not being highly skilled, his smarts and assertiveness result in him having a strong offensive impact year after year.
According to Evolving-Hockey’s WAR, since the start of the 2019-20 season his impact has been worth 1.7 WAR, good for 49th among all NHL defencemen. If we look at this year’s impact alone, according to the model he’s been worth 0.9 WAR, which is good enough for 25th among NHL defencemen. He doesn’t have any crazy on-ice percentages that are highly inflating this number either. He has been flat out awesome in such an unassuming way.
Now let’s take a look at his three year RAPM from Evolving-Hockey.
Most of this has come playing top four minutes. The best of it came playing with Thomas Chabot with the Ottawa Senators, but the results aside from there have also been very good.
This is a guy whose results have been that of a number two or at worst a number three defenceman over the past three years, and that’s just by playing a very smart, assertive game. He doesn’t need to high end skill to be that effective, he just is that effective. Once Ville Heinola is given an opportunity to seize an NHL job, it’s more than conceivable that those two could form a high end NHL defence pairing, as Heinola can be the guy who takes charge of the transition game, and be the guy who is more involved offensively.
DeMelo is also under contract for three more years beyond this season at a very team friendly cap hit of $3 million.
Seattle taking Morrissey would be a good scenario for the Jets, so protect Logan Stanley instead
Logan Stanley has proven he’s likely at least a bottom pairing NHL defenceman. Will he be anything more than that? Maybe, maybe not. He has struggled at times against speed, but has looked very steady otherwise. At the very least, the Jets can be a contender with him as a bottom pairing defenceman on an inexpensive contract.
The same likely can’t be said about Josh Morrissey playing top pair minutes on an expensive contract.
At the end of the day, losing Morrissey in the expansion draft would just be freeing up $6.25 million for the next seven years and getting out of a contract that is starting to look really bad. He might be able to turn it around, but he’ll need to be playing in a role that isn’t and likely won’t be available to him on this roster for some time.
The Jets also have a lot of good prospects on left defence, including Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg. Declan Chisholm may be able to make a mark in the NHL at some point in the next couple of years if given the opportunity. Couple this with the fact that the Jets are thin down the right side with respect to prospects, and it becomes clear that losing Morrissey wouldn’t hurt the team nearly as much as losing DeMelo, even if they were playing at a similar level. The gap between DeMelo and Morrissey right now just makes it so much more obvious who the Jets should be exposing if they were to protect Stanley.
Who should the Jets expose if they trade for Mattias Ekholm?
If the Jets trade for Mattias Ekholm, who would be under contract for one more year beyond this season, they now have an extra defenceman they need to protect.
I’ve touched on Morrissey versus DeMelo, but I haven’t really touched on DeMelo versus Stanley yet.
Again, given how impactful Dylan DeMelo has been for the Jets, and given that Logan Stanley is looking like a pretty good player, but nowhere near the impact of DeMelo, despite having extremely sheltered minutes to this point, the obvious answer here would be to expose Logan Stanley.
Put it this way, if the Jets were to lose Stanley in the expansion draft, they would likely be doing a lot better than most teams. This is a guy whose absolute ceiling is likely that of a number four defenceman, and it’s probably more likely he plateaus as a number five or six defenceman. Stanley is 22 years old and turns 23 on May 26th. For the most part defencemen are more or less what they are around this age and it shouldn’t be expected that they develop into much more than they are (you can read more about that in two part piece written by EvolvingWild here and here if you’re interested). As such, the chances of Stanley becoming as impactful as DeMelo are very slim.
The Jets are set up well for the expansion draft
As long as the Jets don’t hand out a gift to Seattle by exposing Dylan DeMelo, they are in relatively enviable shape for the coming expansion draft. Even in the worst scenario (with respect to the expansion draft), if they trade for Mattias Ekholm and extend Adam Lowry, the worst they’re looking at is losing a likely bottom pairing defenceman in Stanley, or a bottom 6 forward who’s past his prime in Lowry.
If they don’t make a trade for a defenceman with term, even the rabid Logan Stanley fan club can relax, as long as the Jets go exactly one way about this expansion draft, and that’s to expose Josh Morrissey and protect Dylan DeMelo. If they do that, they will be fine.