Dustin Byfuglien’s season-opening leave of absence was already an issue for the Winnipeg Jets. For a defense corps already depleted by the off-season departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot, the 34-year-old blueliner’s sabbatical left a big hole on the blueline.
Byfuglien was said to be taking time pondering his future. Last week, however, it was revealed he recently underwent ankle surgery and could be sidelined at least four months. The fact he didn’t notify the club raised questions over his relationship with the organization.
The situation has grown more complicated. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the two sides could be in disagreement over Byfuglien’s injury status since last season and his willingness to continue playing. “It’s emotional, it’s heated, and it’s likely going to arbitration,” said Friedman.
What’s certain is Byfuglien remains sidelined until sometime into the new year. He might not be ready to return until sometime in February or March. Assuming he’s game-ready by that point, the apparent deterioration of his relationship with Jets management suggests he might not have a future in Winnipeg.
So how can Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff replace Big Buff? His ongoing absence allows some salary-cap relief to put toward a stop-gap or long-term substitution.
Finding one during this season, however, won’t be easy. No one within their organization can replace the 6’5”, 260-pounder’s physical presence, offensive skills, and blue-line leadership.
The pickings are slim in the free-agent market. Dion Phaneuf’s performance steadily declined in recent seasons. Injuries have pretty much ended the playing careers of Marc Methot and Adam McQuaid.
The Hockey News‘ Jared Clinton suggested Los Angeles’s Alec Martinez, Calgary’s Travis Hamonic or T.J. Brodie, and the New York Islanders’ Nick Leddy as trade options. Hamonic and Brodie are slated to become unrestricted free agents next summer. Assuming they’re available, their respective clubs could wait until the Feb. 24 trade deadline to move them.
The rebuilding Kings received a young forward (Carl Grundstrom), a prospect, and a first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season for Jake Muzzin. They could seek a comparable return for Martinez.
Meanwhile, the Flames and Islanders are playoff contenders. They’ll want something back that helps their Cup chances.
Clinton listed Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, Pittsburgh’s Jack Johnson, and the New York Rangers’ Marc Staal as veteran options signed beyond this season. He pointed out, however, they won’t improve the Jets’ blue line and come with salary baggage the Jets won’t want to take on.
Unless a better blueline option becomes available, Cheveldayoff and his team have no choice but to wait this out. They could bring back Sami Niku or Ville Heinola if injuries strike at some point. If they stay in the playoff race, perhaps an affordable depth defender becomes available on the waiver wire or trade.
If Byfuglien returns to action in January or early-February but wants out of Winnipeg, they can attempt to swap him for a package that includes a promising rearguard. If he retires, they can use the cap savings to pursue a quality playoff rental.
Beyond this season, they could also look toward next summer’s UFA market. Stars such as St. Louis’ Alex Pietrangelo, Toronto’s Tyson Barrie, or Boston’s Torey Krug could be available, though it’ll be expensive luring them to Winnipeg.