November 11, 2019

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Byfuglien on 'personal leave of absence' as Jets open training camp

Dustin Byfuglien's presence is unparalleled in the NHL — and altogether irreplaceable.

Yet, the Winnipeg Jets are now forced to face life without the hulking defenceman — with no timetable for a return — after he asked for, and was granted, a leave of absence from the team Thursday.

The news was made public Friday just hours before the official start of training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex. No details were provided, other than assurances that it is not health-related.

Head coach Paul Maurice said Byfuglien is "doing all right."

"Let’s just put it this way — there’s nothing sinister to this... he has his right to privacy in this. Like I said, there’s nothing sinister to it. He needs some time and he was given that," said Maurice.

He said there was nothing to indicate Byfuglien had an issue until he approached management about needing some time away.

"No, it was new, something new," Maurice said. "I think it’s going to be well-handled."

"I met with Buff (Thursday) and we had some conversations and in the conversations he indicated that he needed some personal time. We certainly granted it." - Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff 

Byfuglien had been skating with his teammates earlier this week for informal workouts, and even went through the grind Tuesday of the team's production day, when players shoot promotional videos for the upcoming season.

The 34-year-old, from Roseau, Minn., is being counted on to play a major role this season after the off-season departures of Jacob Trouba, who was traded to the New York Rangers, and Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free-agency. Any prolonged absence would present a major challenge for the Central Division squad, although Maurice took a more pragmatic approach.

"Well, we don’t know if it impacts it at all. For tomorrow’s skate it will. But we’ll get into timelines again and I don’t have those answers for you," he said.

"We’ve got some new faces back there and camp is important for them but if you’re looking for silver linings, there’s more games now, possibly — if Dustin misses games — to take a look at some of those guys."

Byfuglien is set to earn $8 million this season and $6 million in 2020-21, the final two years of a five-year, $38 million contract.

Byfuglien stands 6-foot-5 and has a weight that fluctuates from 250 to 280 pounds, depending on the season. He can use his might to toss opponents around like ragdolls, even two at a time, yet can generate speed with the puck and pull off moves that astonish and dazzle.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Files</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien during training camp earlier this week.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Files

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien during training camp earlier this week.

Routinely, he'll be asked to play 25-plus minutes a night, balancing a physical style of play with sound defence and a willingness to flash his offensive side.

The veteran defenceman's off-ice persona, at least within the confines of the Jets dressing room, is equally gigantic. He's the court jester of the bunch, beloved and revered by teammates, coaching staff and the rest of the organization.

The Jets will, for the time being, have to do without everything he brings to the table.

On the right side, the responsibilities of Neal Pionk — acquired in the Trouba trade — and Tucker Poolman, who spent all of last season with the Manitoba Moose, might be expanded considerably.

"What he brings is pretty recognizable. He's a really unique guy in the room for us, doesn't have many bad days, keeps it pretty light," said captain Blake Wheeler. "I've been his teammate now for eight-plus years and he just shows up and does his job every single day."

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said the 13-year NHL veteran and his family have the full support of the organization to take as much time as he requires.

"I met with Buff (Thursday) and we had some conversations and in the conversations he indicated that he needed some personal time. We certainly granted it," said Cheveldayoff.

"Dustin is a big part of our family here. There’s always an open policy for discussions. We always care about people of our family. One thing I will say, health-wise, everything is good for him and his family. But again, from out standpoint, we support Dustin and look forward to the resolution."

As for any hint of how much time the Jets' alternate captain might be away?

"It’s all still fresh. We’ll see as time moves on," Cheveldayoff said.

A year ago, Byfuglien suited up for the fewest games (42) of his career as an NHL regular, sidelined by a concussion and two ankle problems. After a six-week absence, he played the last week of the regular season and all six games against the St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the playoffs.

He finished with four goals, the lowest total of his career, and 27 assists before adding a pair of goals and six helpers against the Blues.

Byfuglien was on the roster of a Minneapolis-area recreational summer program — Da Beauty League — but didn't play in any games. His agent, Ben Hankinson, is the league's founder and Byfuglien has been a regular for years.

Hankinson did not return a call from the Free Press Friday.

Bryan Little, a teammate of Byfuglien's since their Atlanta Thrashers days, said it's difficult to start camp without one of the club's leaders.

"It's tough not to have him here. Obviously, we'd all like him here, but all you can do right now is be there for him as a friend," he said. "It'd be nice to have him here, we want him here, but he's got some personal stuff to attend to."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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History

Updated on Friday, September 13, 2019 at 8:53 AM CDT: Corrects that camp participants go through on-ice fitness testing today.

9:01 AM: Corrects typo

11:04 AM: Adds comment from Cheveldayoff

5:34 PM: Final version

5:53 PM: Adds video

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