Jets avoid crisis with Seattle taking Appleton as focus turns to blue line

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WINNIPEG — Depending on your point of view, you might be tempted to call this a potential crisis averted for the Winnipeg Jets.

While much of the chatter going into the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft centred around the decision to protect 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley instead of Dylan DeMelo, the player the Winnipeg Jets ultimately lost was right-winger Mason Appleton.

This isn’t to suggest that the departure of Appleton won’t sting, especially after he put together the best season of his young career in 2021, producing 12 goals and 25 points while suiting up in all 56 games and averaging nearly 14-and-a-half minutes of ice time per game.

Thanks in part to the departure of Jack Roslovic in the trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Appleton took the necessary next step in his development, upping his offensive totals while also playing an important role on the checking-plus line with Adam Lowry.

Appleton spent a chunk of the season killing penalties and when injuries arose, he was also used on the power play. A strong skater, Appleton is one of the best Jets players when it comes to driving to the net and losing him leaves a void at right wing – a position where the Jets don’t have a lot of right-handed shooters at the present time beyond captain Blake Wheeler.

A sixth-round choice (168th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft, the 25-year-old has blossomed into a middle-six forward with some additional offensive upside. Whether he continues his trajectory to consistently move into the 15-to-20 goal range remains to be seen, but you can count on him being in double digits while playing a responsible two-way game.

Under contract for one more season at $900,000 before he’s a restricted free agent with multiple years of team control, Appleton turned into the logical choice for Ron Francis and his management group.

Interestingly enough, Appleton might initially slot in on an energy line with former Jets winger Brandon Tanev – who was the Kraken selection from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the reality of the situation is that Appleton is going to be easier to replace for the Jets, who have internal options like Kristian Vesalainen looking for more responsibility and Jansen Harkins looking to rebound after a tough season.

The Jets top priority coming into this offseason was to upgrade their defence corps and losing DeMelo would have compounded that glaring issue, especially when you look at the thin organizational depth on the right side behind restricted free agent Neal Pionk.

Instead of needing to find two top-4 blue-liners, the Jets can focus their attention on trying to land one.

Whether the intention is to reunite DeMelo with Josh Morrissey or use him in a mentorship role with Ville Heinola, Logan Stanley or Dylan Samberg, a significant blow has been avoided.

There are going to be plenty of observers who suggest Cheveldayoff simply got lucky by exposing DeMelo and not losing him. Others will say he did his due diligence and things ultimately played out the way he suspected.

Both statements can be true and while the NHL expansion draft was a source of consternation for many general managers, Cheveldayoff was able to successfully navigate the potholes on this road and also avoided the temptation to make a side deal to ensure he kept DeMelo in the fold despite exposing him.

Losing another asset or two could have been a detriment in both the short and long-range planning for the Jets.

DeMelo is a player the Jets obtained at a reasonable cost of a third-round pick from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 18 of 2020 and he immediately helped provide some stability to a defence corps that had been overhauled. He then chose to forego his first taste of unrestricted free agency for a sense of stability, inking a four-year deal worth $12 million ($3 million AAV) with the Jets.

DeMelo made a commitment to the Jets’ organization and after what was probably an anxious few days of wondering what the future might bring, the steady defenceman was probably breathing a sigh of relief knowing now that he’s not going anywhere.

The focus for Cheveldayoff and the Jets management team will temporarily shift to the 2021 NHL Draft, but the pursuit of a blue line upgrade is very much a work in progress.

And with the Kraken agreeing to terms with unrestricted free agents Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak this week, the Jets were forced to scratch off two players who would have been on their wish list.

So, does that defensive upgrade come in the form of a trade – perhaps even with the Kraken – or a free agent signing?

It’s too early to tell, but it shouldn’t take long for things to come into clearer focus.

By the time the weekend arrives, the list of transactions in this suspected summer of blockbuster moves should be piling up.

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