July 12, 2020

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Are Jets better off without Big Buff?

Defenceman that dazzled fans, manhandled opponents may have helped slow team's progress to a screeching halt

Opinion

It wasn't supposed to end this way. There were to be more thunderous bodychecks. More dazzling end-to-end rushes. More rag-dolling two opponents at the same time. More penalty box sing-a-longs. And maybe, just maybe, a Stanley Cup celebration.

Instead, the Dustin Byfuglien era in Winnipeg is about to come to an unceremonious end as the big Jets defenceman with the even bigger personality goes out with a whimper, and not a bang.

And so, I say good-bye and good riddance to the never-ending speculation and sideshow that had accompanied this saga.

As far as NHL players go, Byfuglien has always marched to his own beat.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

As far as NHL players go, Byfuglien has always marched to his own beat.

For as much as Byfuglien helped the Jets reach new heights, including a trip to the Western Conference final just two seasons ago, he's also played a huge role in bringing all that progress and prospect of sustained success to a screeching halt this season.

Which is why Monday's news — first reported by TSN's Frank Seravalli — of a pending mutual contract termination, abandonment of his ongoing grievance and parting of the ways might just be the best thing to happen to the organization all year. It's the closure they desperately need. And it's the resolution that will serve the franchise best.

For the Jets, they will get much-needed clarity of their cap situation, no longer having to keep a light on for Byfuglien should he and his US $7.6 million cap hit for this season and next return at some point. That's a substantial development, with the team just three points out of the final Western Conference wildcard playoff spot and with the Feb. 24 trade deadline looming.

Suddenly, money is not nearly as much an object for a group that has some substantial holes to fill.

For Byfuglien, he gets... who knows, actually? A fresh start somewhere else? Perhaps, if he decides he wants to put away his fishing rod, stash his snowmobile and give hockey another chance. He would be an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any club, not unlike what Ilya Kovalchuk did earlier this year after terminating his deal with Los Angeles, then signing a league-minimum deal with Montreal.

Byfuglien ruffs up Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons. Byfuglien had a unique combination of size, skill and sandpaper.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/JEFFREY T. BARNES

Byfuglien ruffs up Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons. Byfuglien had a unique combination of size, skill and sandpaper.

However, until and unless Byfuglien actually gets back on the ice to test out his surgically-repaired ankle — something Elliotte Friedman reported last weekend may not happen anytime soon — the chances of the soon-to-be 35-year-old actually returning and making an impact remain slim. I suppose that might not preclude a legitimate contender from taking a bit of a flyer and signing him, the way many people buy a lottery ticket every week and hope to hit the jackpot.

Aside from the obvious financial flexibility, the dark cloud that's been hanging over Winnipeg can finally clear. As much as coaches and players can insist Byfuglien's lame duck status hasn't been a distraction, there's no question it's one of the main reasons they're currently outside the playoff line and facing daunting odds to find a way to play spring hockey for a third straight season.

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien carried a US $7.6 million cap hit for this season and next.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien carried a US $7.6 million cap hit for this season and next.

Byfuglien, who has always marched to his own beat, pulled a fast one by keeping his playing intentions private until the eve of training camp last September. After taking a couple twirls after a summer spent away from the rink, he apparently wasn't feeling it and announced he was thinking of hanging 'em up.

That was quite the gut punch to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who had already traded defenceman Jacob Trouba and allowed blue-liners Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to walk in free agency, all due to salary cap concerns. One or more of those players, or at least suitable replacements, would still be here had Cheveldayoff known then what he does now.

A re-charged and rehabilitated Byfuglien, who missed half of the previous season with three different injuries, was expected to be a pillar on the back end. Instead, his selfish actions created nothing but chaos and uncertainty. The Jets were supposed to be in "win-now" mode, with a talented core locked up long-term. Byfuglien's curveball changed everything.

It was too late to go out and find a suitable replacement, especially with Byfuglien, his agent and the NHLPA filing a grievance against the Jets which threatened to hold everything up until a decision on his suspension without pay could be rendered. I don't believe he ever truly had a shot at winning, as all of the information gathered suggests Byfuglien was in the wrong here. The fact it's going to be dropped would back that up.

Without Byfuglien in the lineup the Jets claimed defenceman Luca Sbisa off of waivers in early December.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Without Byfuglien in the lineup the Jets claimed defenceman Luca Sbisa off of waivers in early December.

That's been of little consolation to Cheveldayoff, who has been reduced to combing through the NHL's scrap heap, grabbing minimum-wagers such Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa off the waiver wire to round out a makeshift blue-line that has looked AHL-quality on many nights this season, especially when injuries began to pile up.

When healthy and on top of his game, there was nobody around the NHL who could do what "Big Buff" could. And there have been many nights this year where the Jets sure could use that player — most recently in last Friday's game against Boston where they went 0-for-6 on the power play and were manhandled against the big bad Bruins, with lightweights such as Neal Pionk and Nikolaj Ehlers dropping the gloves and not faring very well.

There have been many nights this year when the Jets could have used Dustin Byfuglien's ability to handle the physical side of NHL hockey.

TREVOR HAGAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

There have been many nights this year when the Jets could have used Dustin Byfuglien's ability to handle the physical side of NHL hockey.

The fact is, that version of Byfuglien is likely long gone. At his age, and his size, not to mention barely playing over the past 13 months, he'd likely be a shell of his former self even if he were to return. And an extremely costly one at that.

In that sense, the Jets dodge a bit of a bullet in getting him off the books. The pressure will now fall squarely on Cheveldayoff to see what he can do with that money, as long as his club can stay in the playoff fight. It's hard to envision a magical in-season fix, as the crop of pending UFA defencemen who might be available don't exactly scream game-changer, including Brenden Dillon, Sami Vatanen, Ron Hainsey, Dylan DeMelo and Marco Scandella.

Sure, they are likely improvements over some of what coach Paul Maurice currently has to work with. But the Jets would be wise to focus on potential impact players with term. Rasmus Ristolainen, Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Dumba are a few of the names currently churning around the rumour mill who could be available for the right price.

It may ultimately be too late to save what is shaping up to be a lost season, with the real fix having to come in July 1 free agency or big summer trades. But at least a resolution on this matter has thrown the sinking club a bit of a life preserver.

Unfortunately for Byfuglien, the entire soap opera has tarnished the legacy of one of the most unique athletes we've ever seen in the city. In this case, absence didn't make the heart grow fonder.

Who knew the last big hit he'd throw around these parts would do so much damage to the Jets themselves.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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History

Updated on Monday, February 3, 2020 at 7:50 PM CST: Updates headline and deck

8:01 PM: Makes minor change to story.

8:19 PM: Fixes minor typo.

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