The Winnipeg Jets avoided a catastrophic defensive disaster on Wednesday, thanks to some luck in the form of an expansion draft selection made by Ron Francis on behalf of the incoming Seattle Kraken.
Opting to protect big Logan Stanley on the blueline over analytics darling Dylan DeMelo, Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff certainly ruffled some feathers of those engrossed in next-generation advanced stats. According to most, DeMelo was the better defeneman, and someone who has formed a strong partnership with the recently struggling Josh Morrissey.
Sure, it’s very difficult to find a 6-foot-7, 235-pound blueliner, but opting to protect four defenceman was also an option for Chevy and Co.
In his post-Expansion Draft availability, Cheveldayoff referenced the time after pushing ‘send’ on his email to the league referencing his ‘protected list’ as “sitting on pins and needles”. Not only did he leave DeMelo exposed, but in choosing to protect forward Andrew Copp – amongst others – home-grown talent Mason Appleton was made available. Kraken GM Ron Francis quickly made his decision to take the Jets’ young forward as a way of helping further establish his top-nine, at Winnipeg’s expense.
“It was a very tough call to make to both Mason and Dylan to tell them that we had left them unprotected,” Cheveldayoff said on Thursday. “It was a tough call to Mason to tell him that he was a selection. It was a pretty joyous call to make to Dylan DeMelo to say that he was still part of the Jets. Lots of emotion there. It’s a bittersweet thing.”
#NHLJets' GM Kevin Cheveldayoff calls his phonecall with Mason Appleton very difficult and the call with Dylan DeMelo 'joyous'.
— Carter Brooks (@CBrooksie84) July 22, 2021
In Appleton, the Kraken have received a player that earned his way into the NHL through the Jets’ ‘draft and develop’ mindset. First, making his mark in the AHL as the league’s Rookie of the Year during the 2017-18 season, before cracking Winnipeg’s roster the following season and making his NHL debut in 2018-19. The 25-year-old blossomed into an every day player the following year, before really coming into his own for the 2020-21 season.
Seeing the former sixth round pick – to whom he watched develop with the Manitoba Moose, before joining his big-league crew – leave his team was certainly difficult for Chevy. Often emphasizing the process of development, losing Appleton to the Kraken certainly left a lump in the throat of the long-tenured manager.
“On the eve of the draft, we end up losing a player that was drafted, that went through our development process, that became a key contributor in the American League and then a solid, key, contributor in the National Hockey League,” he expanded. “It just kind of underscores what the process of this weekend (the NHL Draft) is all about. I’m proud of how Mason has come through the organization and I wish him all the best. It creates a hole in our lineup for sure that we’re obviously exploring right now, the different ways to patch that up.”
Although various other Jets draftees will now have the opportunity to battle for Appleton’s former gig, Cheveldayoff did not want to go about his availability without wishing his former draft selection well-wishes on his next step along the journey.
“It was because of the scouting we did and the pick that we made that we had an NHL player,” Chevy said of losing the talented Appleton. “When I got the call from Ron Francis yesterday morning that he made that claim, the only sigh of relief is that now we can move forward. At least you know which path you’re going down. Mason is going to be a good player there. With an increased role there, he’s going to flourish and good for him. We wish him all the best.”
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Despite trying to negotiate a deal with Francis that would see the Kraken avoid taking both Appleton and DeMelo, Cheveldayoff said there wasn’t a trade to be made that would make sense for the Jets in the long run.
“It was real tough,” he said. “We all knew when Seattle was coming in that there was going to be an opportunity to lose a piece of your team. We discussed with Seattle about what it would take to potentially not lose a piece off our team, but there was nothing that would work for me to make a deal that was going to satisfy that. So, like I say, when you get ready to hit send on your protection list, you take a deep breath. There was lots of conversation and dialogue, but it became what it became.”
Now with the 2021 NHL Entry Draft set to begin with Round 1 on Friday, Cheveldayoff and his assistants will turn their full attention to the draft board and potential targets to help begin the patchwork process of filling the void that Appleton and his pending UFAs have left behind.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Chevy said. “I guess we’re just under a week away from free agency, so lots can happen between now and then. We’re going to spend the time exploring all those different options. There could be some internal options, maybe (Kristian) Vesalainen moving to the right side or something like that, but those things, you have to have some conversations with the coaches and see where they feel that is at as well.”
For now, the focus will remain on pick No. 18 of the opening round. Although already fielding a few calls for that selection, Chevy is fully expecting to proudly make his team’s pick when called upon late Friday evening.