Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/9/2019 (297 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There's nobody quite like Dustin Byfuglien, who can turn a hockey game on its head with one jaw-dropping dash up the ice or devastating bodycheck. Both feats, I might add, typically done with a huge smile on his face.
Whether it's bopping his head along to the in-arena music while sitting in the penalty box, rag-dolling two or three opponents in a scrum or trash-talking his teammates on the bench and during practice, "Big Buff" brings a unique blend of levity and intensity whenever he laces up his skates. Despite being an intensely private person away from the rink, he's one of the biggest personalities in the NHL.
All of which is why his absence during Winnipeg Jets training camp is looming larger by the day — and a future without the one-of-a-kind Byfuglien in the lineup may be coming a lot sooner than anyone had thought.
Byfuglien was granted an indefinite leave of absence just as the action began last Friday, the result of a face-to-face conversation 24 hours earlier in which he dropped a bombshell on general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was already dealing with a couple other major headaches with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still unsigned and must have initially wondered if he was the subject of some elaborate prank.
Naturally, the whispers began and the rumour mill was cranked to high. Coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing "sinister" at play here, and from everything I've found that is true. There's no scandal or smoking gun to be found.
Regardless of what might be happening in Byfuglien's personal life, which frankly is none of our business, this really is about one core issue: How much longer does he want to keep playing hockey?
"...Using the time to ponder his NHL future. I’m not saying Byfuglien is retiring; I’m not saying he’s coming back to play. Only that he’s contemplating his options and there’s no timetable for a decision." — TSN's Bob McKenzie
Veteran TSN journalist Bob McKenzie reported Wednesday that Byfuglien is "using the time to ponder his NHL future. I’m not saying Byfuglien is retiring; I’m not saying he’s coming back to play. Only that he’s contemplating his options and there’s no timetable for a decision."
That certainly lines up with what we've been hearing around the team for several days, but nobody would confirm, including his agent who has declined comment. Other than saying Byfuglien has their full support and they'll give him as much time as he needs, nothing else has been offered up by the organization.
Maurice provided a few additional soundbites on Wednesday morning regarding Byfuglien, who is one of the team's alternate captains along with Mark Scheifele.
"We know that when you have a player ask for some time, and privacy then is paramount in all these, you open up to all the speculation. And I understand that," said Maurice.
"Our options are to be completely forthcoming and then we open up the question and answer period, or to do what is almost always done and explain that it's a private matter. So I get it if you're going to ask for 20 different permeations of what would cause a player to ask for a leave, but privacy is paramount so I won't comment on any speculation."
Maurice said there have been "a number of open lines of communication" through the process, but provided no other details or timeline for any kind of finality to the situation. Obviously the sooner some clarity is provided to the team the better, considering just how big an impact this is going to have.
Let's assume for a moment Byfuglien has lost the passion that makes him such a treat to watch. It's not hard to fathom, with the 34-year-old coming off a truly miserable season in which he suffered three different injuries — a concussion and two ankle-related ailments, and only played in 42 regular-season games. That took a major toll, physically and, no doubt, mentally.
It was somewhat telling that Byfuglien opted not to play this summer in Da Beauty League, which was put together by his agent, Ben Hankinson, in Edina, Minnesota. The annual event features NHL, AHL, ECHL and college-level players who live and train in Minnesota during the off-season, and Byfuglien had been a staple in previous years.
Having watched some of the league's games in person in 2018 for the purpose of a feature story I wrote, I can tell you the pace isn't exactly off the charts. It's a fun way for players to keep in shape and interact with fans. Did Byfuglien just need some extra time away from the rink to allow his body to heal? Perhaps.
"Dustin missed half the hockey season for us last year, so this is specific to him. We're used to not having him in the lineup." — Jets head coach Paul Maurice
It's also notable that Byfuglien appeared down at Bell MTS Iceplex a few days before camp began and skated with a large group of teammates, even participating in the club's production day in which videos and promos were shot for the upcoming season. A small group of us watched Byfuglien skate one day, and he didn't appear to be his usual jovial, fun-loving self. There was a more business-like approach as he simply went through a handful of drills.
A couple days later came the stunning announcement.
Byfuglien has two years left on his contract, with a salary cap hit of $7.6 million. In real money, he's set to pocket $8 million this year and $6 million next year. He was expected to be a major part of a depleted defence core this year that lost Jacob Trouba in a trade (for Neal Pionk) and Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in free agency.
Without him, the Jets blue line currently consists of Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, Pionk, Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman, with others like Anthony Bitetto, Cam Schilling, Logan Stanley and Nelson Nogier providing additional depth.
Not even those downing the Jets Kool-Aid on a daily basis can possibly see that as the defensive corps of a Stanley Cup contender, can they? And when the inevitable injury bug hits, as it does every year, how thin will that top-six D group really start to look?
"Dustin missed half the hockey season for us last year, so this is specific to him. We're used to not having him in the lineup," Maurice said Wednesday of trying to keep a level-head throughout this. That's fair, but the Jets also had a heck of a lot more depth to help off-set the loss. And it still wasn't good enough to accomplish their goals.
Sure, the Jets would free up some much needed salary cap space with Byfuglien off the books, but what might they be able to actually do with it now, in time to actually help for what was shaping up to be an all-important season but is starting to feel like its circling the drain before the puck has even dropped?
"We’ve developed a cool relationship the last few years and he’s really been one of the big reasons for me stepping in when I first got in the league," Morrissey said Wednesday. "Of course, I miss seeing him every day.
"Everyone knows what type of player he is, what he means to our team. We’d love to have him, obviously, but at the same time I totally respect whatever he’s got to do. I think it’s a really private matter."
Fresh off signing an eight-year, $50-million extension last week, Morrissey might just have to play 60 minutes a night for the Jets to have a fighting chance.
"Everyone knows what type of player he is, what he means to our team. We’d love to have him, obviously, but at the same time I totally respect whatever he’s got to do. I think it’s a really private matter." — Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey
All the big free agents are locked up, and you have to think the Jets would have taken a run at the likes of Jake Gardiner, or even re-signing a couple of their own free agents like Myers and Chiarot, had they had an inkling this was coming.
There's always the possibility of a trade, but now you'd be depleting another area to try to fill a need. And with Laine and Connor still without contracts — and the ever-increasing possibility one or both won't be here when the regular-season begins in two weeks — the Jets don't exactly have a surplus of talent to work with.
The idea of walking away from $14 million would seem ludicrous to most of us, which is what would happen if Byfuglien opted to retire. But the Minnesota product has already made a boatload of money — $50 million over his career, according to CapFriendly — and this is a man whose tastes aren't exactly luxurious.
A Stanley Cup champion (Chicago, 2010) and veteran of 869 career NHL games (177 goals, 348 assists, 1,094 penalty minutes), Byfuglien has had the kind of career most players can only dream of. He loves fishing, and hunting, and living more of a low-key lifestyle. He would probably be just fine, financially, to say the least.
This is about much more than dollars and cents, but what makes sense for his long-term health and enjoyment of life. Unfortunately for the Jets and their fanbase, what ultimately might be best for Byfuglien is probably going to come with a significant cost.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.
Updated on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at 6:31 PM CDT: Adds photos