When Dustin Byfuglien was granted a personal leave by the Jets ahead of training camp, the hope in Winnipeg was that he would be back by the time the puck dropped for the start of the season. As of Wednesday, though, the Jets are simply left hoping ‘Big Buff’ will return at all.
Less than one week after the Jets announced Byfuglien’s leave, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported early Wednesday morning that the 34-year-old rearguard is believed to be taking the time away from the game to “ponder his NHL future.” McKenzie added that Byfuglien hasn’t made any decision about whether to continue his career or hang up his skates and there is no timetable for such a decision. As McKenzie noted, Byfuglien is currently in the fourth year of a five-year, $38-million pact he signed with the Jets in February 2016. He is slated to earn $8 million this season and $6 million next.
News of Byfuglien contemplating retirement is stunning, no doubt. Over the past few seasons, Byfuglien has remained a top-tier defender and was generally on the periphery of the Norris Trophy conversation each season. Over the past two campaigns, he has scored 12 goals and 76 points in 111 games, all the while logging upwards of 24 minutes per contest. Among the 196 defensemen with at least 82 games played over the past two seasons, Byfuglien’s point-per-game production rate of .68 ranked 13th in the NHL. He has, however, battled injury in recent years. He missed 13 games due to a variety of injuries during the 2017-18 season and was sidelined 40 games last season, missing time with a concussion and more than 30 games due to ankle injuries.
No matter the reason behind Byfuglien’s decision to take a break and mull over his next steps, though, it’s commendable from both a player and team perspective that he’s taking and being given the time to come to a conclusion and one hopes he’s happy with whatever decision he makes. That said, and while it should have no impact whatsoever on Byfuglien’s decision as this is his choice to make, the uncertainty surrounding his situation does raise serious questions about the Jets’ blueline.
Already, Winnipeg was set to enter the season with a defense corps that had been stripped of one of its best pieces as a result of the swap that sent Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers earlier this off-season. The Jets did receive Neal Pionk as part of the return from the Blueshirts, of course, but Pionk isn’t viewed as a one-for-one replacement for Trouba and definitely not a stand-in for Byfuglien, who has anchored the Winnipeg blueline since the franchise’s move from Atlanta. Thus, during his absence and if Byfuglien decided to depart, it leaves the right side of the Jets’ defense incredibly shorthanded. To wit, if the season started today, the left side would be held down by Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu. That’s manageable. The right side, however, would feature some combination of Pionk and the somewhat unproven Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman. That’s worrisome.
The inevitable conversation, then, is one of potential fill-ins on the right side or trade options for the Jets in the event Byfuglien hangs up his skates. As it pertains to the former, Winnipeg’s choices are few and far between, in large part due to the salary cap situation facing the Jets.
At present, Byfuglien’s $7.6-million cap hit is on the books in Winnipeg, and with restricted free agents Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine yet to put pen to paper, the Jets don’t have a clear view of what kind of financial flexibility they will have once the season opens. In fact, there’s reason to believe almost every cent of the $15.45 million that is available under the cap could very well be tied up in contracts for Connor and Laine. That means zero cap space for the Jets, which in turn means the fill-in options in the interim would be limited to those already under contract or on the roster. Put another way, prepare for a steady dose of Pionk, Niku and Poolman.
Should Byfuglien decide to hang up his skates, though, the math changes, his cap hit comes off the books and trade options open up for Winnipeg. One would then assume there’s going to be a hunger from Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to find a suitable top-four replacement, at which point there are a few potential options, chief among which would be Justin Faulk, who appears to be the odd-man out on a Hurricanes blueline that needs to shed a piece with Carolina exceeding the cap. A Faulk acquisition would check several boxes for the Jets, too, in such a scenario. He’s a capable top-four rearguard, can log big minutes, has offensive upside and – this one is important – is a right-handed blueliner. While not a perfect replacement, he absolutely fills the need.
That’s not to say Winnipeg’s options are Faulk and Faulk alone. The Buffalo Sabres’ Rasmus Ristolainen has been oft mentioned in the rumor mill, and there are others – the Calgary Flames’ Travis Hamonic and Vancouver Canucks’ Chris Tanev, for instance – who could be had for the right price.
It almost goes without saying, though, that the ideal scenario isn’t the acquisition of Faulk or Ristolainen or Hamonic or Tanev or anyone else. Rather, it’s that Byfuglien makes the decision to return, assumes his spot on the top pairing and continues to be the integral piece of the Jets’ core that he has been for nearly a decade. But as Winnipeg patiently awaits his decision, the contingency planning will have to begin, as there’s a very real possibility that the harsh reality of life without ‘Big Buff’ could begin far earlier than expected.
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