The Winnipeg Jets had nine players make their debuts with the team this season. Three in particular were very pleasant surprises.
3: Dylan DeMelo
The highly-intelligent and cerebral defender didn’t miss a beat after the Jets acquired him for the paltry price of a third-round pick in the week prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.
Related: DeMelo Deal a Deft One for Jets
The former Ottawa Senator was an immediate upgrade and jumped to a top-pairing role alongside Josh Morrissey almost immediately, skating an average of 21:14 in 10 games prior to the NHL shutdown. Head coach Paul Maurice even described DeMelo’s consistent play as “coach’s porn” at one point.
Adding the right-shot defenceman — who has put up impressive possession numbers in his career and nearly always makes the right reads during breakouts from his own zone — went a long way to shoring up the Jets’ deficient d-core and helping them soar during a stretch run — a run that will likely not be completed as the COVID-19 pandemic has ground professional sports and life as we know it to a total halt.
The Jets went 6-3-1 with DeMelo in the lineup and should try their damnedest to ink the pending UFA to a new contract this summer. Having such an effective defender — in addition to the promising prospects poised to make the jump to the Jets next season — could see the back-end much improved come fall.
2: Jansen Harkins
The “forgotten player” of their stellar 2015 draft, the Jets’ patience with Jansen Harkins is starting to pay dividends.
Selected 47th overall in that draft, the B.C. product recorded two goals and five assists for seven points in 29 games before the season pause.
A hard-working and determined forward, nobody deserved a call-up more than the former Prince George Cougar. He got off to a scintillating start with the Manitoba Moose, as he recorded seven goals and 24 assists in 31 games — including a whopping 18 in a 10 game point streak in November — and was named an AHL All-Star before making his Jets’ debut on Dec. 21.
While he didn’t get as much of a chance to flex his offensive muscles in the NHL as he was mostly deployed in a bottom-six checking role, Harkins’ understanding of the game, playmaking skills, and compete level were all evident, especially when he played with fellow 2015 draftees Mason Appleton and Jack Roslovic. It’s hard to believe he spent time in the ECHL two seasons ago.
While Harkins’ NHL career is still in its nascency, he should be one of the young guys in the Jets’ plans going forward. There’s certainly the potential for him to be a valuable and versatile two-way centre similar to Andrew Copp. He’s a restricted free agent come July.
1: Neal Pionk
Derided by most before he’d ever put on a Jets’ jersey, Neal Pionk proved all those who believed general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff got fleeced in the Jacob Trouba trade rather wrong.
Pionk’s first campaign in Winnipeg has been nothing less than a revelation. The smart and smooth puck-moving defender has posted a career-high 45 points, leads all Jets’ defenders in time on ice at 23:23, and has suited up for all 71 games. He’s been deployed in all situations, including as the only d-man on the Jets’ top PP unit. 25 of his points have come on the man advantage.
The Jets had a mass defensive exodus over the offseason, losing Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers in addition to Trouba. The already less-than-ideal situation was made even worse when Dustin Byfuglien decided last-minute he didn’t want to show up for camp.
Pionk’s calming and steady presence has been integral to a battered blue line that’s suffered injury after injury and depended too often on waiver wire pickups.
He was rightly criticized last season for his poor possession numbers, but they haven’t been an issue in this, his third NHL campaign. His Corsi is 51.4 — nearly eight points higher than last season — and his Fenwick is 50.2, up nearly six points.
“We saw him as a version of Josh Morrissey,” Paul Maurice said in January. “He gets to the walls pretty heavily when he needs to. Because of the situation we’re in with our defensemen this year, and with Byfuglien’s absence, he got pushed into (ice time) numbers that are great for him. He’s a really fit guy and he’s capable of handling it, so it gave him the opportunity to be as good as he is. We are exceptionally pleased with how it has worked out for us.”From ‘Nobody in Winnipeg is asking ‘who the hell is Neal Pionk?” anymore,’ The Hockey News, Jan. 8, 2020.
Jets fans have been exceptionally pleased as well, especially since Trouba struggled in his first campaign with the New York Rangers, posting 18 fewer points, having a worse plus/minus, and logging less ice time than the man he was traded for.