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This article was published 30/12/2018 (1242 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There’s no other player in the NHL quite like Dustin Byfuglien. And now, the Winnipeg Jets face a daunting challenge in the form of life without their unique, Stanley Cup-champion defenceman for at least the next month — and possibly longer.
Byfuglien, 33, went down with an apparent left ankle or leg injury in the third period of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Minnesota, and it certainly didn’t look good as he pulled up lame and couldn’t put any weight on the limb. The news got even worse for the club Sunday afternoon, when head coach Paul Maurice said the earliest possible return would be after the all-star game in late January.
"No surgery, just a flesh wound. He’ll be out for a while," said Maurice, who wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly the specific injury is.
"I could, but I won’t. Lower body," he said. "(The all-star game) would be at the very earliest part of the window. But the window would open. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in two or three weeks. But, I guess what I was saying is, don’t ask me until after the all-star break."
Byfuglien was on a career-high offensive pace, and very well could have been playing in that all-star showcase on Jan. 26 in San Jose. He has four goals and 25 assists in 32 regular-season games, putting him ninth in NHL scoring among defencemen, while averaging a team-high 24:29 per game
‘No surgery, just a flesh wound’ ‐ Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Byfuglien’s injury
"It’s a big void. He’s obviously one of the top players in the league and an important piece of our team. Whatever amount of time he is out, other guys will have to step up," Byfuglien’s defence partner, Ben Chiarot, said following Sunday’s practice at Bell MTS Iceplex.
"You can’t replace a guy like Buff, but in saying that, you have to be able to play with everybody and I’m comfortable with any of the guys up here."
The Jets are currently on top of both the Central Division and Western Conference with a 24-12-2 record, but have lost two straight and three of their past five. They close out 2018 by facing the Edmonton Oilers tonight at Rogers Place, with puck drop set for 8 p.m. CT.
Joe Morrow will get the first crack at filling Byfuglien’s place in the lineup. He has no points in 19 games this season, and hasn’t suited up since Nov. 27 after suffering a minor injury followed by a string of healthy scratches.
"I’ve been watching a lot of hockey lately, obviously, and that helps in being able to understand what’s been going on and what needs to be done with this team and how you fit in. I just need to simplify things, and the simpler you are out there, when it’s your first game back, the better you’ll be," Morrow said Sunday. "That’s the whole mindset that I have. Bring a lot of effort, bring a lot of skating, and just make simple plays and minimize mistakes to have a very successful game."
The Jets are also expected to call up a defenceman from the Manitoba Moose. Tucker Poolman would have been the natural option as a right-handed shot like Byfuglien, but he’s been out of action for the past month with a concussion.
"He’s in the protocol, he’s had moments where he’s felt better. But they’re being really patient with this one. Any time he has a minor headache, he’s not skating, so he’s not ready to play," Maurice said of Poolman.
Expect Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers to see their ice time all increase as they take on bigger roles in Byfuglien’s absence.
"Everybody’s got to pick up some minutes and some slack. I definitely think we have the players to do it," Trouba said. "Every team deals with different injuries. We’ve had some big pieces go down in the past, and we seem to find a way to fill in and with the way we play the game, we have our identity and we have that to lean back on and play into."
Byfuglien has missed six previous games this season following two different injuries. Winnipeg went 5-0-1 in those games. If there’s a silver lining to the timing of the injury, it’s the fact Winnipeg has both the all-star break and their annual "bye-week" in January, playing just 12 times in the month.
Maurice said his squad is much more well-equipped to handle a major injury such as this than any time in the past.
"Just look at our right side. You’ve got Tyler Myers and Jake Trouba, who’d both very much like to play 25 minutes a night. And they’re going to get an opportunity now. So, even when Dustin went down earlier, we had Morrissey and Trouba playing 28 minutes a night. We have players who can handle it. They can take it," Maurice said.
"We’re going to miss the guy, for sure, in almost every facet of your game. Size, physicality, offence, zone time. If it gets a little wobbly out there calming your game down, you miss him. But we’ve got other men that can each do a piece of what Dustin does. Maybe not the combined package, but they can all do a piece of it."
The first big test comes against an Oilers squad that has dropped five straight games in regulation, getting outscored 25-12 in that stretch.
"Hungry team, obviously. You lose five in a row, I know in here, if we had lost five in a row, we would be a very hungry team going into that game. We will expect their best game (today)," Chiarot said.
Sunday’s 45-minute practice was focused on speed and tempo, which Maurice hasn’t liked in consecutive losses from his team coming out of the Christmas break.
"We know what we’re capable of doing. We haven’t liked our game recently, but we’ve got to work to get it back and everyone in here knows we’ll get it back. We’re going through one of those phases that you’ve got to work out of," Trouba said.
Two previous meetings with Edmonton this season have resulted in 5-4 overtime victories, one for each team. Maurice wouldn’t say Sunday whether Connor Hellebuyck or Laurent Brossoit would start in goal.
"They’ve got some skill guys up front that you’ve got to account for. Their back end can get in, and they’ve got some role guys that play the game pretty hard. They’re pretty similar to our team, and it’s been a good matchup the last two times. We don’t expect anything different," Trouba said.
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.