Let’s be clear: Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque aren’t going to be mistaken for Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Not now. And likely not ever.
Heady, useful players, sure. But hardly the type to bring fans out of their seats or create a buzz around the NHL.
But the cold, hard reality is that with Laine, 21, and Connor, 22, both missing from Winnipeg Jets training camp as a result of ongoing contract disputes, two major vacancies on the wing will need to be filled until the restricted free agents are signed to new deals and return.
And that’s where the likes of Appleton, 23, and Bourque, 28, may come in. They are among a handful of players who are not only battling for depth spots with the team, but also the increased opportunities that may immediately present themselves.
There was Appleton on Saturday, skating in Connor’s traditional spot on the left wing beside No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele. Veteran forward Mathieu Perreault was on the right side, and that trio is expected to get at least one pre-season game together this week.
"Terrific player, obviously sees the ice really well and can make plays in all three zones and finish very effectively," Appleton said of Scheifele. "It’s fun to play with those high-skilled guys. Obviously, some of the best in the world. It was a good practice."
Appleton was selected by the Jets in the sixth-round, 168th overall, of the 2015 NHL entry draft. That’s a position that hardly screams future NHL player. But the 6-2, 193-pounder has impressed at every level, finishing up a terrific college career at Michigan State, winning the AHL rookie of the year award with the Manitoba Moose in his first pro season in 2017-18, and then splitting last year between the Moose and Jets, showing he is more than capable on the biggest stage.
"What I’d like to do there is expose them to different styles of games. I’d like to see Mason play with a centre with a tremendous amount of skill and vision and see where he’s at with it. There’s that idea, expose all of these guys to something they don’t get to see a lot so we can see where they’re at in their skill development and then there were almost always two veteran players with a young player," coach Paul Maurice said of putting the trio together.
Appleton had three goals and seven assists in 36 games with the Jets last year, and 15 goals and 17 assists in 40 games with the Moose.
"Far more comfortable. Feel better right out of the gates. There’s always those jitters, a little bit, especially in your first few years. But those are non-existent now. It’s just hockey, having fun, enjoying training camp and learning from the process. Feel very comfortable," Appleton said of his current mindset.
“For me, it’s always about trying to focus on myself and just playing my best game. I can’t control when guys are here. Wherever I’m needed in the lineup, I’m going to do my best to fill that spot and play to the best of my abilities.” — Mason Appleton
"For me, it’s always about trying to focus on myself and just playing my best game. I can’t control when guys are here. Wherever I’m needed in the lineup, I’m going to do my best to fill that spot and play to the best of my abilities."
Bourque took a different path to the Jets, signing a one-year, two-way free-agent deal this summer. He has 361 career NHL games on his resumé, all in the Central Division with Nashville and then Colorado. He has 38 goals and 59 assists during that time.
"It’s a good group of guys. Bigger and stronger, so that’s good for me. It’s always a tough place to play for when I’ve come here, so it’s nice to finally be on the good side, can’t wait to get in the first game," Bourque said of landing in Winnipeg.
"For me and my family, it was a good place, with the NHL and AHL in the same place. For sure, the way they play and the style of game and an older group, it was a good fit. After the talk I had with them, it was a good match. A good chance for me to come here."
The 5-10, 206-pound Bourque is known as a physical checking forward who is especially adept at the penalty kill, which is an area the Jets struggled with at times last season. Losing forward Brandon Tanev in free agency won’t help the cause, so the opportunity was there for Bourque, even before Laine and Connor were no-shows.
"He’s a character guy and a real good pro. Usually when I say that, it’s that he has a clean understanding of what his game is. These are guys that aren’t in your office every two weeks wondering what they can do more of. They know their game. They know how to play it. He’s been in the League enough that he knows other teams as well.... so real good pro and we think he’s going to be able to fit. We can move him around a bit, pretty versatile," Maurice said.
As for Laine and Connor, there’s no contract developments. However, it was reported Saturday that Laine will join SB Bern, a pro team in Switzerland, to skate and train for the time being.
"Really good. Absolutely. Pro hockey, too. Sticking around and I get it, they join an amateur team that they used to play with or a junior team. But if you can get out on the ice with a pro team and there are men there that are going to train faster, I’m really happy to hear (that). Truly," said Maurice, who would prefer to have the Finnish sniper in Winnipeg.
Although their absences are duly noted, Laine’s good friend, Nikolaj Ehlers, said life goes on for everyone else in camp.
"You want them here, no doubt about that. But if the 45 guys we do have here sit and miss them every day, we’re not going to move forward as a team. We obviously want them back, and when they do, we’re excited. But right now, with the new guys that we have coming in, we’re excited to create something with them and see where that takes us. It doesn’t change a thing in this locker room right now," Ehlers said.
"They’re two guys we’ve played with for three years, they’re like brothers, we want them back. But that’s how it is. We can’t just sit and wait for them to come back, we’ve got to do something while we’re here."
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.