Scratch Dustin Byfuglien off the list of pending free agents and star players available at the trade deadline.
The Jets announced Monday afternoon that Byfuglien, 30, has signed a five-year, $38-million deal to remain in Winnipeg. His $7.6-million annual average salary makes him one of the five highest-paid defensemen in the entire league. Byfuglien’s new deal also makes him the highest paid player on the Jets.
The deal comes exactly three weeks from the trade deadline, where it was expected that Byfuglien, if available, would have been one of the hottest trade candidates.
Byfuglien, one of the most beloved players in Winnipeg, has been one of the Jets’ best players this season. Through 52 games, he sits tied for second on the Jets with 15 goals and is fourth in scoring with 32 points. He's averaging the highest ice time of any player in Winnipeg at 24:14 per game, and he’s second on the club with four game-winning goals.
"We've got a good group of guys here that I've been with for a while now," Byfuglien said. "Watching the process of everyone coming up and who's coming in the organization and who we've got coming, I believe in what they're trying to do around here. You can't win a Stanley Cup overnight. It's a process, and I feel that they're in the right stage. Thought I'd run with them."
Byfuglien has spent the past six seasons as part of the Jets’ franchise, and was first acquired by the franchise while they were still in Atlanta. After winning the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2009-10, Byfuglien was a salary cap casualty and sent to the Thrashers along with Ben Eager, Akim Aliu and Brent Sopel in exchange for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin, a first-round (Kevin Hayes) and second-round (Justin Holl) picks in 2010.
Signing Byfuglien was one of Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s biggest priorities this season, and getting it done before the end of the season — and before the trade deadline, at which Cheveldayoff would have had to choose whether to deal the big blueliner or risk losing him for nothing — is a huge win. In a season where there hasn’t been much to cheer about, locking up Byfuglien long-term gives the fanbase in Winnipeg something to be excited about.
"It never really cross my mind to go anywhere (else)," Byfuglien said. "It's exciting. I'm excited to be a Jet."
With Byfuglien signed, Winnipeg now has more than $50.5 million tied up in salary for next season.
Attention now turns to Jets captain Andrew Ladd, who is Winnipeg’s other big-name free agent-to-be as the deadline approaches.
Ladd, 30, is on pace for the fifth 20-goal season of his career and is coming off of a huge 24-goal 62-point campaign. There is some uncertainty surrounding the ability of the Jets to sign both Byfuglien and Ladd, but Winnipeg will likely take their time and see if they can come to terms with the veteran winger before testing the trade market for him.