The Winnipeg Jets were always going to lose a solid player to the Seattle Kraken, barring some kind of risky side deal. But the fact it was forward Mason Appleton — and not defenceman Dylan DeMelo — should be considered a significant victory.
Simply put, a high-scoring club that often looks lost in its own end will have an easier time trying to fill the hole created by the expansion draft. And a calculated gamble to expose the reliable DeMelo in order to protect rookie Logan Stanley from the clutches of the NHL’s 32nd franchise paid off for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who ultimately keeps both in the fold.
The 25-year-old Appleton was one of 30 skaters plucked from rival rosters by the Kraken in a glitzy prime-time unveiling Wednesday that was as anti-climatic as they come, given various hockey writers and broadcasters had already spilled the beans hours earlier on social media. I suspect Gary Bettman, along with their new U.S. television partners at ESPN, absolutely lost their minds over that development.
Memo to the league: You might want to get a plumber in to check for leaks.
Appleton, a Wisconsin product selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, is coming off a breakout season in which he had 12 goals and 13 assists in 56 regular-season games. It was quite a story, considering he was taken in a spot where very few ever realize their big-league dreams. Appleton went from a player just trying to find full-time work with the Manitoba Moose to the 2018 American Hockey League rookie of the year to someone Jets coach Paul Maurice ultimately came to trust, part of a strong third-line along with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp.
Despite that, the Jets had little choice but to leave him unprotected, using their seven forward spots on Lowry, Copp, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois. His age, versatility, upside and an affordable US$900,000 salary for one more season before becoming a restricted free agent next summer made him an attractive option for Seattle, where he should be given a great chance to take another step.
Appleton seized an opportunity to play a bigger role last season that was created by Jack Roslovic’s contract dispute with Winnipeg, which led to him being traded (along with Patrik Laine) to Columbus in exchange for Dubois. Now, several internal candidates should be afforded a similar chance to fill Appleton’s skates.
Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen, David Gustafsson and Cole Perfetti are all looking to establish themselves as regulars as early as next season. With other forwards such as Paul Stastny, Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis all set to hit unrestricted free agency next Wednesday, there could be multiple openings up front, depending on how the rest of the summer plays out.
Still, the solid forward core remains intact, although Copp is a restricted free agent who needs a new contract. If Winnipeg can’t get his name on a long-term extension this summer — and the last I heard is that negotiations were ongoing with much work to be done on that front — they may have no choice but to move him rather than risk losing him for nothing in a year from now as a UFA.
The bigger concern remains the back-end for a Jets team that is still far too loose in that department and puts way too much on the shoulders of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck to bail them out. They must clean up their act, which is why exposing DeMelo so they could use their three blue-line spots to protect Stanley, along with established pros in Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk, had many around here up in arms.
Turns out there was a method to the perceived madness after all. Winnipeg truly believed the intriguing 23-year-old Stanley, with his towering 6-7 frame and five years of development after being a first-round pick in 2016 (18th overall), would be the chosen one if made available to the Kraken.
"They were going to take him. I can tell you that with 100 per cent certainty," a league source told me on Wednesday afternoon.
As much as they valued Appleton, the Jets were hoping he would catch Seattle’s eye over DeMelo. And that’s exactly how it played out, with the Kraken ultimately looking elsewhere for the 12 defencemen they picked.
No, there’s nothing flashy about DeMelo, 28, who signed for three more seasons at US$3 million. But he’s arguably Winnipeg’s most defensively-responsible rear-guard. He played a key role on the top-pairing with Morrissey in shutting down Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in a four-game sweep of Edmonton. And his absence in a second-round sweep at the hands of Montreal loomed large after he suffered a groin injury in the opening minutes of Game 1.
The organization is thrilled to have him back.
Cheveldayoff wisely avoided making a side deal with Seattle, the way he did four years ago with Vegas. That year, the Jets left defenceman Toby Enstrom exposed in order to protect Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, but Cheveldayoff swapped first-round draft picks (Winnipeg’s 13th, which Vegas used to select Nick Suzuki, in exchange for the Golden Knights’ 24th, which the Jets used to select Vesalainen). Vegas then took Chris Thorburn as essentially a wasted pick, not even bothering to sign the UFA.
With the expansion draft now in the rear-view mirror, Winnipeg can move forward trying to boost a blue line that contains all of DeMelo, Stanley, Morrissey and Pionk, along with promising young prospects such as Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg. Sami Niku and Nathan Beaulieu are also under contract as potential depth, while Derek Forbort, Tucker Poolman and Jordie Benn are all UFAs who aren’t expected to be re-signed.
Whether it’s by trade — Copp would certainly be a potential chip if his asking price ultimately can’t be met — or in free agency starting next Wednesday, there are a lot more miles to go before Cheveldayoff can sleep easily. But keeping DeMelo in the fold, rather than losing him to Seattle for nothing in return, is a major step in the right direction.
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.