When most teams’ prospects go to college, fans of those teams may be reasonably certain they won’t see them turn pro for three or four years. Not the Winnipeg Jets though.
The Jets have drafted many players who have gone the college route, but not many of those have lasted the full four seasons at their chosen school, deciding to go pro early. On Thursday, another player joined that list, and he was perhaps the most surprising yet.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) July 13, 2017
Mason Appleton, drafted as an over-age player in the sixth round of 2015, could not have been drafted with less fanfare. With the Jets snagging Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic in the first round, then getting Jansen Harkins, Erik Foley, and Michael Spacek in rounds 2-4 (all of whom were considered good picks at the time and were projected to go earlier), Appleton fell by the wayside a bit.
Incidentally, the Jets’ next pick, Sami Niku, has also recently signed an entry-level contract. The 2015 draft could end up as the most successful in franchise history, as it doesn’t look like there’s a single miss so far, excepting the last pick, Matteo Genaro.
After a solid freshman campaign at Michigan State in which he put up 22 points in 37 games, the Winnipeg Free Press said Appleton had gone from “longshot to project” and might turn out better than his draft placement suggested. A strong development camp last summer raised fan awareness of him, and a much better offensive year in Michigan helped raise optimism around him.
LT: Appleton, 21, had 31 PTS in 35 GP with Michigan State last year. Stands 6'2, 195 lbs. Another #NHLJets college prospect goes pro early.
— Rob Mahon (@RobMahon19) July 13, 2017
Clearly, Appleton and the Jets felt he was ready for the rigours of the pro game. His point totals are actually better than those of NCAA free agent signing Brandon Tanev, albeit in a different conference, and he’s got pro size as well.
Appleton turning pro was a pleasant surprise, as he could have gone back to Michigan for one more year and no one would have raised an eyebrow. He’s the latest Jets prospect to turn professional early after initially going the college route.
Now, there was no way Kyle Connor was staying in college after his incredible freshman year. Ditto for Jacob Trouba, who was ready for the pros and proved it the next year.
Jack Roslovic could have stayed at Miami of Ohio for another year, earned no criticism for it, and given his first professional season, it seems he made the right choice.
All of those players are first rounders but they’re not the only ones to leave school early.
A Pattern Emerges
Plenty of Jets prospects who’ve gone the college route do stick it out. Erik Foley is still with Providence College (for now at least) and he’s putting up big numbers there. And I can’t imagine oft-injured Jack Glover will go pro early.
But it’s not just Jets first rounders that are panning out quicker than expected. Connor Hellebuyck spent just two years at UMass-Lowell.
Other college-bound draft picks have been good to the Jets as well. Andrew Copp spent three years at Michigan, and Tucker Poolman left UND after three years, though he joined the Fighting Hawks as a 21-year-old.
So what’s the lesson here? We already knew the Jets were good at drafting, as did most of the hockey world. This is just another example to reinforce the idea.
Perhaps the lesson lies more in how we view college prospects. With the college route no longer viewed as a guaranteed four year path to the NHL, we’re seeing more and more prospects fast-track it. Tyson Jost, Connor and Roslovic, Colin White, and Brock Boeser are just a few examples.
This is good for leagues like the BCHL and AJHL too, Jost and Cale Makar’s stomping grounds, because they get better players who want to go the college route but know it doesn’t have to slow their ascent to the NHL.
But I digress.
For the Jets, Appleton already represents a win. If he never becomes more than a reliable depth player for the Moose, he’s a sixth-round pick well spent. If he plays in the NHL, which no longer seems impossible, the Jets scouting staff could be forgiven for being a little pleased with themselves.
Appleton’s next year will be a constant stream of firsts: first rookie tournament in Penticton, first pro training camp, first exhibition game with any luck, first pro game, and then the other milestones will start rolling in.
Enjoy it, kid. Goodness knows a justifiably smug Jets scouting staff will.