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Winnipeg Jets sign pending UFA defenceman Dylan DeMelo

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo (12) and Ottawa Senators left-winger Brady Tkachuk (7) look down ice towards the play during second-period NHL action in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Fresh off selecting Saginaw Spirit centre Cole Perfetti with the 10th overall pick in Tuesday night’s NHL Entry Draft, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff removed a huge item from his to-do list by signing pending unrestricted free agent defenceman Dylan DeMelo.

The contract is for four years and has an average annual value of US$3 million.

DeMelo was acquired by the Jets in February and played in 10 games following the trade, primarily as a partner for Josh Morrissey on the team’s No. 1 defence pairing. He told reporters during a Zoom call that Winnipeg was a preferred destination, despite his short time with the team.

“I thought I fit in well with the guys, the system, the organization as a whole. It didn’t take me long to get used to everything and get acclimated. The fit just felt really good and when we lost (to Calgary) I just felt that Winnipeg was definitely the top choice,” explained DeMelo.

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“I was really hoping something could be worked out here and I’m really happy it did.”

DeMelo says that “fit” also applies to the makeup of the team, because in addition to the blueline, the Jets have the best goalie in the league in Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, not to mention what DeMelo describes as a very explosive group of forwards. “It might be one of the best groups of forwards I’ve played with.

“I love the identity of the team and would like to continue to be a piece of that puzzle. I feel like we have unfinished business.”

Read more: ‘I’ve dreamed of this day’: Winnipeg Jets take centre Cole Perfetti in 1st round of NHL Draft

“[We’re] excited that we were able to get him locked up,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “[At] 27-years-old we think that he’s right in his prime and should be someone that gives us some good stability.”

The six-foot, 191-pound London, Ont., native was asked why he resisted the temptation to test the free-agent market in his first opportunity to do so. His rationale was that while money was a factor, so too were the term of the contract and, stability. “I’ve been looking for a home. I’ve been with three teams in three or four years here so — not just for me but for my wife, my family,” said DeMelo who also shared that he and his wife are expecting their first child in January.

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“We’re looking to plant some roots and heard Winnipeg is an amazing place to raise a family. We’re really looking forward to that.”

That might sound odd, considering the Manitoba capital is often the butt of jokes around the NHL as one of the least desirable places for players to set up shop. But DeMelo does not come across as your average well paid and pampered athlete. “I’m a pretty low-key guy and I think every day in the NHL is a blessing. We’re very lucky to do what we do and make the money we make. This really was my first chance to cash in, and this is life-changing money for me and my family” said DeMelo who repeated that fit and stability were priorities over padding his bank account. “Obviously with the pandemic, everybody’s been taking a hit and I’m very fortunate now to sign this contract during these times.”

Read more: ‘I wanted it so badly’: Winnipeg Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck voted NHL’s top goalie

The work is far from over for Cheveldayoff as the Jets still have nine other pending unrestricted free agents in forwards Cody Eakin, Nick Shore, Gabriel Bourque, Logan Shaw and Mark Letestu and defencemen Nathan Beaulieu, Dmitry Kulikov, Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto.

“We obviously have more work to do here yet,” Cheveldayoff said. “We’ll hit the ground tomorrow to get ready for free agency opening up Friday.”

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