Heading into the offseason, the two main priorities for the Vancouver Canucks are to shed salary and upgrade the blueline. Obviously, this is easier said than done, and there’s a possibility that the team’s backend might be even worse next season if Vancouver doesn’t find a way of shedding one or more of their bloated contracts. 

With Chris Tanev set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Canucks are faced with a difficult dilemma. It’s no secret that the team would like to re-sign him, but at what cost? Tanev is now on the wrong side of 30 and has a long injury history. Even though he enjoyed a bounce-back season and appeared in every game this year, it might be too big of a risk to extend him given his age and mileage.

On the other hand, if Vancouver decides to let Tanev walk, the team would be left with only one proven right shot defenceman, Tyler Myers, signed for next season. I’m sure glad that I don’t have Jim Benning’s job right now.

But what if I told you that there’s a right-handed top-four defenseman who’s younger and can be signed for cheaper than Tanev who’s also set to become a UFA this offseason? It might sound too good to be true, right?

Maybe not.

Enter Dylan DeMelo, a former sixth-round pick who only became a full-time NHL player last season. You’re probably frowning in confusion right now, but hear me out: DeMelo might not be a household name, but he would be the perfect replacement for Tanev if the latter ultimately decides to sign elsewhere. 

Before we move on, I first want to say that I won’t be analyzing his play with the Jets since the sample size is too small. DeMelo only suited up for 10 regular-season games with his new club before the league was shut down and only played in four play-in games after the NHL’s resumption, so I’ll strictly be focusing on his time with Ottawa. 

Enough chit-chat, let’s dive into DeMelo’s underlying numbers.

Reliable Defensive Game

Here’s an interesting question: since the start of last season, out of every Senators defenceman who has appeared in more than 30 games, who do you think has led the team in expected goals rate at five on five? 

Don’t lie, the first name that popped into your head was Thomas Chabot, wasn’t it?

Turns out, it was actually DeMelo, who posted a 51.89% expected goals rate and also ranked second in Corsi by controlling shot attempts just over 49% of the time. Don’t get me wrong, those aren’t elite numbers by any means, but they are mighty impressive considering Ottawa has been the second-worst team in the league over the past two seasons.

He hasn’t been sheltered, either. In fact, DeMelo’s most common defence partner over that span has been Chabot, who logs some of the heaviest minutes in the entire league. Moreover, his numbers don’t drop off a cliff when he’s away from Chabot; with the two of them together, the Senators have controlled shot attempts 49.33% of the time and have an expected goals rate of 52.36%. Without Chabot, DeMelo’s numbers dip to 48.82% and 51.42%, respectively, which are still very good considering the team he was on. 

Surprisingly, Chabot’s expected goals rate dips down to 50.39% without DeMelo, although his Corsi stayed at the same rate. Obviously, the former faced tougher competition when the two were separated, but it does show you the type of impact that DeMelo has on his teammates. 

In comparison, Hughes and Tanev controlled shots 49.46% of the time and had an expected goals rate of 50.22% at five on five together during this past season. Alarmingly, those numbers plummeted to 40.38% and 43.43% when Tanev played without Hughes, which shows how much he relied on the rookie over the year. Looking at these stats, there’s a very real possibility that DeMelo could free up Hughes even more next season if Vancouver signs him and the two develop some chemistry together. 

If you’re still not convinced of DeMelo’s defensive game, take a look at the two graphs below:

The Senators were basically league average at suppressing quality shots this season with DeMelo on the ice but were 8% worse when he wasn’t playing. His defensive chops will no doubt be welcome in Vancouver, as the Canucks have been one of the worst defensive teams over the past few seasons and gives up an alarming amount of high danger chances on a nightly basis.

What Could His Next Contract Look Like?

Naturally, the question that follows is how much DeMelo might command in free agency. There aren’t many past comparables that match well with a player of his stature, especially since he became an NHL regular only last season.

With the league’s salary cap staying flat for the next few years, it’s even harder to gauge DeMelo’s worth. The likeliest scenario will be that he uses Joel Edmundson’s new deal with Montreal as a comparable. They’re both 27 and the latter is a decent #4 or #5 defenseman on most teams, which is probably how DeMelo is viewed around the league. 

Edmundson was just signed for four years at an annual average value of $3.5 million per season, which is what DeMelo will most likely be aiming for. I don’t believe he’ll quite reach that high of a number since Edmundson is a more established player even though he did have a down year this season. 

Taking that into consideration, I believe that DeMelo’s next deal will be closer to $3-3.25 million annually for 3-4 seasons, which is right around the average of most second pairing defenseman these days.

As we have seen, however, DeMelo’s impact is far above a borderline second pairing player since he’s shown the ability to elevate the play of those around him while holding his own in the absence of elite talent. This is exactly why the Canucks should do everything they can to sign him; DeMelo isn’t very well-established due to his relative inexperience and his contract could end up becoming a bargain as a result.

Furthermore, his new deal will most likely be at least $1.5 million cheaper than what Tanev will be commanding, so Vancouver might be able to sign a younger and better player while also saving cap space to use elsewhere. 

Although it’s a small sample size, DeMelo appears to be a relatively durable player as well. He suited up for 63 games with the Sharks in 2017-18, but most of his absences were due to being a healthy scratch. Since the start of last season, his only lengthy absence was caused by an errant puck that resulted in a broken finger, which is a freak injury that could happen to anyone. The 77 games he appeared in last year were already more games than any season Tanev has played in, and the low mileage on DeMelo’s body could help him stay healthy for years to come.

In Summary…

As you can see, DeMelo’s advanced stats show a player who can complement an elite defenseman while also holding his own when he plays alongside lesser talent. With Tanev’s advancing age and the Canucks’ impending cap crunch, the team might be able to improve its back end while saving salary cap by signing DeMelo if Tanev becomes too pricey to retain. No matter what happens, Jim Benning needs to exhaust all his options this offseason, and this is one avenue he should heavily consider with free agency just a few weeks away.

All stats from Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz.