Appleton gets off to a welcome start again, but the Jets still need to do more this offseason

This isn’t the kind of move that’s going to freak out a fan base, not one that has been begging for a headline-grabbing deal since the season ended on May 1.

It’s also not going to solve many of the real or perceived problems the Winnipeg Jets are looking to attack this offseason.

But for a franchise looking to bolster its forward group, clarity with Mason Appleton is important to GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

With Appleton and the Jets avoiding arbitration on Sunday, after the two sides agreed to a deal that provides a raise and some security for Appleton (three years, $2.167 million AAV), the organization was able to lock up a local winger who he is just over a year away from his best season as a professional.

The Jets never wanted to lose Appleton to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft in the first place, but Cheveldayoff wasn’t interested in paying the inflated price set by Ron Francis to keep him.

As is often the case in our social media generation, the reaction was swift and varied, from this is a good deal for the Jets to why the Jets would provide a significant raise in salary and term for a member of the fourth line. .

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and there are several reasons why a deal of this nature is important for the Jets, who have yet to land a key free agent or make a trade that represents a significant improvement in appearance. staff. .

One of the many problems the Jets faced last season was having a third line that lacked his usual identity of being difficult to play and contributing offensively on a fairly regular basis.

Center Adam Lowry has been the constant in that role, but he had a revolving door of linemates last season, none of whom were able to shine or find much chemistry.

So it was no surprise that the Jets reacquired Appleton from the Kraken for a somewhat reduced price, at least compared to what it would have cost to prevent Francis from drafting him in the summer of 2021.

No, Appleton didn’t come back and immediately produced the way he did when he managed to set career bests with 12 goals and 23 points in 56 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

But that didn’t mean Appleton wasn’t a good fit, he just didn’t have the numbers (two goals, two assists in 19 games) to show for it.

He’s a strong pre-control presence, adds some size and his speed allows him to take the puck wide open, while his willingness to drive into the blue paint is another obvious advantage.

He’s also a guy who can be used on the penalty spot, a trait that became even more important after Andrew Copp’s departure to the New York Rangers in the other key deadline deal that was made.

With Appleton under contract, the last remaining restricted free agent to play for the Jets in North America this season is center David Gustafsson and that deal is expected to be around $1 million in AAV (as winger Kristian Vesalainen is out). ready to play overseas, though the Jets retain their rights).

Appleton, who turns 27 in January, is a draft and developmental success story, a late-blooming sixth-rounder who wound up becoming an NHL regular.

Admittedly, he has been used primarily in a control line role, but there have been flashes where Appleton has shown signs of transforming into a six-in-the-middle player, though he would need to do so more consistently to take the lead. next step in developing it.

Will Appleton be able to replace the entire offense going out the door with Copp leaving?

Unlikely, though Appleton produced 22 goals and 66 points in 76 games during his first professional season with the Manitoba Moose, a performance that earned him the American Hockey League’s top rookie title.

Appleton also had 15 goals in 40 games during his second season in the AHL and those 12 goals he scored for the Jets in 2020-21 put him on pace for 17 scoring over a full season.

So it’s not unreasonable to see why the Jets would project him as a guy who can be in that 13-16 goal range.

If that’s the case, there will be value in the contract, especially when you consider the Jets bought two unrestricted free-agent seasons.

Sure, there’s always a chance Appleton ends up deadlocked and in the 8-10 goal range, but the Jets are confident he’ll return to his former form.

Perhaps most importantly, they give Lowry a familiar face, someone he has chemistry with and someone new head coach Rick Bowness knows can play against the opponent’s best offensive players.

As for who keeps the left wing down that line, the most likely inside options include Jansen Harkins or Morgan Barron, though a finalist like free agent Sonny Milano certainly makes sense for that job.

When you factor in Appleton’s salary, the Jets still have the funds to sign someone like Milano, or trade for someone like Lawson Crouse from the Arizona Coyotes or Jesse Puljujarvi from the Edmonton Oilers, which could change a few things when it comes to deployment. .

The point is that the Jets don’t necessarily need to roll a defensive player first in that unit, though he’ll need to be thorough.

Neither Lowry nor Appleton are seen as natural scorers, although both have eclipsed double digits in the NHL, with Lowry doing so multiple times.

Cheveldayoff acknowledged on July 13 when free agency opened, that improving the front group was a priority. So far, his actions have supported the notion.

Offers made to Calle Jarnkrok (who ended up accepting less money to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs) and Danton Heinen (who stayed with the Pittsburgh Penguins after considering the Jets and several other teams that made more lucrative pitches) show that Cheveldayoff he wasn’t just paying lip service about this task.

This isn’t about patting Cheveldayoff on the back for being in the mix for some of these value buys, as there are no participation medals doled out for making a quality bid at this level.

Cheveldayoff’s job is to make sure the Jets are a better team next season, and not just on paper, so that could mean making some tough or even unpopular decisions.

Up to this point in the offseason, the Jets haven’t improved enough, though there’s still plenty of time to bring in a player, or players, to bolster the roster before training camp begins in September.

With roughly $5 million available to hit the salary cap ceiling, Cheveldayoff still has room to turn around.

It also doesn’t matter if it ends up being a home run or a double as a general rule. But sticking to the baseball theme, Cheveldayoff can’t be caught watching strike three because he’s waiting for a perfect pitch.

There are still too many capable NHL defenders in the system and at least one of them needs to be involved in a deal that clears the logjam and bolsters the forward group.

That Cheveldayoff has taken such a methodical and patient approach comes as no surprise, it’s basically how he’s been rolling, with a few notable exceptions, since taking over as the lead in the summer of 2011.

But make no mistake, steps still need to be taken for the Jets to be more than just a bubble team next season.

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