New season, clean slate for Appleton and Jets
Forward says team has a chip on its shoulder after disappointment of last season
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Mason Appleton followed up a season to remember with one he’d rather forget. The Winnipeg Jets winger is hoping the clean slate of a new campaign will get him and his teammates back on track.
“Honestly, I think this summer was probably good for everyone,” Appleton said Wednesday following a training camp skate at Bell MTS Iceplex.
“We had a ton of interviews at the end of the season and we all kind of had the same answer that we felt we significantly underachieved. When you don’t make the playoffs, summer is a long time off. And you could just see with everybody coming back 10 days before camp, kind of wanting to get on the ice, wanting to work hard, bag skate, doing all the little things just to be ready for day one. It’s a different vibe around here. We got that chip on our shoulder now that we might have not had in the past, where we thought we were a little better than we were. So it’s just a different mindset around here.”
Appleton, 26, is a draft-and-develop success story for Winnipeg, a sixth-round pick in 2015 who now has more than 200 NHL games under his belt. He took a massive step during the 2021 truncated season, with a career-best 12 goals and 13 assists in 56 games. Bigger and brighter things appeared to be on the horizon.
Then came the Seattle expansion draft, where he was left unprotected by the Jets and plucked by the Kraken. He had just 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) in 47 games with the new franchise, then was traded back to Winnipeg at last February’s deadline where he had just four points (two goals, two assists) in 19 games.
“It’s kind of a different situation, getting traded back to a team with (19) games left and you’re kind of outside of a playoff spot and you’ve got a different head coach,” said Appleton. “You know, you play one system in Seattle and then you jump back into slightly different Winnipeg systems. But it is a fresh start again, I think kind of for everyone. From the ground up. We’re trying to retool it and not rebuild but just correct a few things and get back into the playoffs.”
Appleton hopes to be a big part of that, especially in a forward group that could desperately use some secondary scoring beyond the usual suspects such as Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
“I don’t think I put a ceiling on it,” Appleton said when asked about his potential to move up. “The coach has full control over where guys play in the lineup. And winning and losing dictates a lot of the line charts. So wherever I am to start, obviously you want to continue to climb and get better in this league, no matter where you’re at. Even the best players, they always want more, more, more. That’s just the mindset to have.”
Appleton began training camp on a line with Adam Lowry and Jansen Harkins. He’ll play Thursday night’s pre-season game in Montreal with Harkins and David Gustafsson.
“He’s a good player, he’s a good hard worker, he’s a great teammate,” coach Rick Bowness said. “You love his work habits, you love his attitude, you love his compete. There is a lot to like with Mason, for sure.”
Appleton was one of three alternate captains during Sunday’s pre-season game in Edmonton as the Jets essentially have open tryouts for an expanded leadership group.
“Obviously, it’s an honour any time you get to wear a letter, whatever level of hockey you’re playing at,” said Appleton. “I’m more of a guy that just likes to work hard and let that kind of be who I am as a leader. You can be verbal, you can show it, and you can do a little bit of both. So I think, for me, it’s just kind of trying to work hard and if I gotta say something, I will, but I try to lead by example as much as I can.”
A trio of injured players are working their way back into the mix.
Brad Lambert and Morgan Barron both joined the full skates on Wednesday, albeit in non-contact jerseys. Wyatt Bongiovanni continues to work out on his own after getting hurt during the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, B.C.
Goaltender Mikhail Berdin was noticeably absent. The 24-year-old from Russia, who has appeared in 127 games with the Manitoba Moose so far, had been on the ice for the first five days of camp skates, although he didn’t dress for either pre-season game.
“My understanding is he’s dealing with some personal issues and we’re just going to leave it at that,” said Bowness.
The Jets currently have five goaltenders in camp, but only four spots for them. Connor Hellebuyuck and David Rittich will be on No. 1 and No. 2 with the big club, and Arvid Holm and Oskari Salminen (signed as a free agent from Finland this summer) are eventually bound for the AHL. Where that leaves Berdin remains to be seen.
Nate Schmidt was a spectator for the first two exhibition games, which he jokingly suggested must have been due to his excellent fitness testing numbers. “I didn’t need any extra games,” he said Wednesday.
He’s expected to be in the lineup as one of the few veteran skaters when the club plays in Montreal. He was paired at practice Wednesday with Logan Stanley.
It was suggested to Schmidt that external expectations for the Jets are significantly lower than they were a year ago, despite the fact the roster is similar.
“Perfect,” he replied with a smile.
Why do you think that’s the case?
“Perfect,” he said again.
Do you relish being an underdog?
“Perfect,” the 30-year-old said a third time.
Mark Scheifele says it’s an honour to have the chance to speak on Saturday when the Dale Hawerchuk statue is publicly unveiled during a ceremony in True North Square prior to the Jets facing the Edmonton Oilers in a pre-season game at Canada Life Centre. “Ducky” was his junior coach and mentor in the Ontario Hockey League.
“Definitely nervous. Public speaking isn’t in my repertoire but… I did officiate (former teammate Eric Comrie’s) wedding so maybe that prepared me for it,” said Scheifele.
“First and foremost, to be able to speak in front of those people at his statue unveiling, that’s an unbelievable honour and to be able to do it in front of his family and friends is amazing and something that I’m not taking lightly. I’ve got to continue to prepare for it but I’m really excited to do that and honour him and know that he’ll be watching down on me as I do it. I want it to be genuine, to come from the heart, and just let me words kind of be taken over and just kind of speak to Dale a little bit and make it special in that sense.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.