Jets Have Compelling Options to Replace Appleton

With Mason Appleton being selected by the Seattle Kraken in the Expansion Draft, it leaves a hole on the Jets’ third line that needs filling.

Mason Appleton Winnipeg Jets
Mason Appleton is heading to the Kraken. Who will take his place on the Jets? (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Jets have lost a utile and talented two-way player on the rise, but luckily there are at least four internal candidates to take his spot. Here’s a look at the four, who will all be competing come training camp.

David Gustafsson

The Manitoba Moose’s 2020-21 Most Valuable Player will look to become a valuable player with the Jets in 2021-22.

The Swede recorded 19 points in 22 games during his second season with the Moose and was consistent, going consecutive games without a point only once. He was also clutch, with three game-winning goals and a shootout winner. All seven goals of his goals, and 14 of his 19 points, came even strength.

The 6-foot-2, 212-pound 2018 pick is the type of hard-working role player and big body every team needs, and he just seems to produce everywhere he goes.

Gustafsson has 26 games of NHL experience, suiting up for 22 in 2019-20 and four in 2020-21. He said while 2020-21 was a strange season and he didn’t get to play as much in the NHL as he wanted to, he also understood the challenges in sending players up and down in COVID times.

David Gustafsson Winnipeg Jets
David Gustafsson played 22 games for the Jets last season and 22 games in 2019-20. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

“So, when I played with the Moose I did everything I could to make the best of it, to work hard and get better,” he told the Winnipeg Free Press in June.

“Learning-wise, it was a good season. I became a better hockey player this year, and as a young guy that’s all I care about. I’ve always been a good defensive player and that’s what Paul (Maurice) told me, too,” he said. “But he said also if I’m going to play every day in the NHL, I have to have some offensive upside, too. I gotta be able to play with the puck and make it stay in the offensive zone.”

From ”Black Ace’ hopes to be a real ace,’ Winnipeg Free Press, June 14, 2021.

Jansen Harkins

Harkins was a bit overlooked in 2020-21 and unfortunately spent a lot of time on the taxi squad, getting into only 26 games in a fourth-line role and recording one goal and one assist.

However, there’s little doubt the hard-working 24-year-old is capable of much more: his rookie 2019-20 campaign — where he had two goals and five assists in 29 games after lighting up the AHL with 31 points in 30 games — shows his potential as an impactful two-way player.

Jansen Harkins Winnipeg Jets
Jansen Harkins in his rookie 2019-20 campaign. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He is a natural centre, but played mostly wing that campaign. He has a good understanding of the game, strong playmaking abilities, a high compete level, and a little bit of sandpaper to his game, too.

It’s hard to bet against Harkins, who has had absolutely nothing handed to him and has earned every opportunity he’s gotten. Look for the 2015 pick to make a compelling case for Appleton’s replacement. While 2020-21 wasn’t his breakout season, 2021-22 could be.

Cole Perfetti

While the Jets envision the ultra-talented Perfetti as a top-six mainstay of the future, there’s a chance he could be eased into his NHL career on the wing, where there is less defensive responsibility.

Perfetti can handle anything thrown at him, that’s a certainty. He thrived despite the OHL season cancellation, recording nine goals and finishing second on the Manitoba Moose with 26 points in 32 games (in non-COVID times, he wouldn’t have even been eligible to play in the AHL, but concessions were made for players in junior leagues impacted by the pandemic.)

He also took home a pair of medals for Canada: silver at the 2021 World Junior Championships before the AHL season got underway and gold at the IIHF World Hockey Championship after the AHL season wrapped up.

Related: Jets Prospect Cole Perfetti Thrives In Unusual Rookie Season

Perfetti is an electric player with immense offensive ability. In his campaign prior to being selected 10th overall by the Jets at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, he scored 37 goals and added 74 assists for 111 points in just 61 games for the Saginaw Spirit.

Cole Perfetti Saginaw Spirit
Cole Perfetti with the Saginaw Spirit in 2019-20. (Luke Durda/OHL Images)

He is undersized at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, which is why starting him off on the wing could make sense.

An invite to the main camp should be a lock for Perfetti, who is going to focus this summer on getting stronger. It will be interesting to see how hard he pushes for a spot and how much a year spent playing in challenging situations — rather than dominating the OHL — will boost his NHL readiness.

Kristian Vesalainen

This will be Vesalainen’s best shot to crack the Jets’ lineup in his career thus far.

The 22-year-old, selected 24th overall in 2017, has yet to carve out a niche for himself in the NHL, and is still searching for his first big-league goal. He had some strong showings in 12 games for the Jets in 2020-21, but was often stuck on the taxi squad and only played 18 games all season (six with the Moose in addition to the dozen with the Jets.)

Kristian Vesalainen Winnipeg Jets
This fall will be Vesalainen’s best shot yet to crack the Jets full-time. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

If Vesalainen doesn’t want to be forgotten about or buried by others on the depth chart, this fall will be the time for him to announce he’s ready to be engaged, dedicated, and to chip in on offence. He’s been dangerous with the Moose at times — he has 13 goals and 22 assists in 66 games over the past two seasons with the club — so the potential to make up for Appleton’s 25 points is certainly there.

Which of these players do you think has the inside track for Appleton’s spot? Comment below!

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