It appears Dustin Byfuglien’s tenure as a Winnipeg Jet is days or even hours away from ending. As reported by TSN’s Frank Seravalli earlier this week, Byfuglien and the Jets are close to working out a mutual contract termination. His longtime Jets teammates reminisced about him publicly this week as if they were saying goodbye, so it’s all but a done deal.
Byfuglien leaves behind quite a legacy with the Thrashers/Jets franchise. He’s fifth on the club’s all-time points list. He’s repped the team in three All-Star Games. From the time he arrived via trade in 2010-11 through the end of 2018-19, Byfuglien ranked fourth among all NHL defensemen in goals and points, second in shots and ninth in hits.
Despite his important standing with the team, the separation doesn’t come as a huge surprise given the fracture in their relationship. Byfuglien was unfit to play to start 2019-20 due to an ankle injury which required surgery – despite having no sign of injury in his 2018-19 year-end physical. The Jets suspended him without pay for refusing to report to training camp. They felt blindsided by the revelation, the right side of their D-corps destroyed after trading Jacob Trouba and letting Tyler Myers walk in free agency. They desperately needed Byfuglien in their starting lineup. He and the NHL Players’ Association filed a grievance claiming he deserved to be paid while recovering from a legitimate hockey injury.
But with no hearing set with a neutral arbitrator, it appears the Jets and ‘Big Buff’ will squash the disagreement and set him free as a UFA. The Jets get the salary flexibility they need to pursue roster upgrades – assuming it isn’t too late for a team sliding out of the playoff bubble – while Byfuglien, should he desire to, can resume his playing career.
So if Byfuglien still intends to play in the NHL, when will that happen? He’ll have to pass through waivers first, and then he’d have to sign with a team by Feb. 24, a.k.a. trade deadline day, to be eligible for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Byfuglien has not started skating yet and is more likely to resume his career next season. But what if the promise of joining a new team for a playoff race motivates Byfuglien to accelerate the rehab process if possible? We know so little about the situation that we can’t say for certain if the injury itself has kept the timeline slow – or if Byfuglien has merely been moving at his own pace.
If it’s the latter, and there’s even a glimmer of hope that Byfuglien could return in the spring, he’d attract a pile of suitors. He has long been one of the most unique players in the NHL – a mobile puck-mover armed with a heavy shot who also happens to be 6-foot-5 and 260-plus pounds and is one of the sport’s two most devastating hitters along with Tom Wilson.
Because he’s such a fun player to watch, and pretty much everyone who loves hockey would love to see him back on the ice as soon as possible, let’s entertain the idea that Byfuglien signs with someone in the next three weeks and recovers in time to suit up for the post-season. Assuming he’s inking a pro-rated, reasonably priced one-year pact, which teams would be the most interesting and plausible fits?
The right side of Boston’s D-corps is already in good hands with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo aboard. But that would also take the pressure off Byfuglien workload-wise if he wanted to ease his way back into regular duty. The Bruins with a relatively healthy Byfuglien would become the No. 1 Stanley Cup contender in the league – if they aren’t that already. Byfuglien would give them a great balance between heaviness and mobility.
The Avs are set up to be trade-deadline buyers and top contenders in the West this spring, and they’ve been linked to several different defensemen in recent trade rumors, such as Alec Martinez of the L.A. Kings. General manager Joe Sakic has the cap space and prospect capital to be a major player. Imagine if the Avs could land the veteran blueliner they seek without trading away a prospect or pick. Perhaps Byfuglien brings more offense than they really need, and they may be better off acquiring a defenseman who plays it safe, but Buff’s physical presence might be worth it. Another high-talent guy capable of logging big minutes (if healthy a few months from now) would be good insurance for rookie Cale Makar if he starts to fatigue a year after playing the short college-hockey schedule.
Oilers GM Ken Holland has hinted that he’ll behave as a buyer if his team has a favorable spot in the standings when the trade deadline arrives. Edmonton has won seven of its past 10 games, a hot streak that coincides with the Kailer Yamamoto call-up, and looks increasingly likely to go the buyer route. While Ethan Bear has been a great surprise as a rookie, Darnell Nurse brings serious snarl and Oscar Klefbom has enjoyed a nice renaissance this season, a healthy Byfuglien would be the most talented member of that D-corps. And given how wide-open the West appears to be this season, it may be worth upgrading. Any team has a chance to make a run.
The Panthers sound like a fascinating fit for Byfuglien should he get healthy enough to play this season. There’s the past connection to the man who was Chicago’s assistant GM when it drafted him, current Panthers GM Dale Tallon, not to mention the coach with whom Byfuglien won a Stanley Cup in Chicago, current Panthers bench boss Joel Quenneville. Tallon has been pretty open about his desire to upgrade on defense. As he told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger earlier this week, he wants to acquire a veteran defenseman. More specifically, Tallon wants someone to play with Aaron Ekblad, so Byfuglien, who plays the same side, wouldn’t necessarily be a fit. But his overall experience level would upgrade the D-corps as a whole, which could still help Ekblad.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Name a right-shot defenseman, and he’s been linked to the Leafs over the past two seasons as they desperately try to fortify that side of their defense, which is too-often porous. The Minnesota Wild’s Mathew Dumba is the name most commonly linked to Toronto these days, but Byfuglien’s well-rounded skill set would also suit the team’s needs nicely. Given how desperate the Leafs are for even league-average help at right defense, Byfuglien could be 75 percent of his normal self and still qualify as a major upgrade.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights traded Colin Miller as they tried to get under the cap this past off-season and have been chasin’ it ever since trying to repair their D-corps. It’s no secret they’re looking to add a top-four defenseman to assist with their playoff chase. Byfuglien would be a dream fit. He’d also bring some wit and star power to a market where both are welcomed and celebrated.
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