Earlier today, Bob McKenzie dropped a bombshell, stating that Dustin Byfuglien was taking an absence from the Winnipeg Jets in order to contemplate his future in the league. As discussed over at JetsNation, the Jets are giving the veteran defenceman time and space while he decides whether he still has what it takes to play at the NHL level.
Byfuglien is 34 years old. He’s on the fourth year of a five-year contract with an AAV of $7.6M although he is scheduled to earn $8M this season and $6M next season.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) September 18, 2019
Byfuglien has played parts of 14 seasons in the NHL now. He’s dealt with multiple injuries over that 869-game career, which has especially been the case over the past two seasons. He was limited to 42 games in 2018-29 and 69 games in 2017-18 due to various leg and head injuries. Given Byfuglien’s hard-nosed playing style, it isn’t overly surprising the wear-and-tear on his body might be overwhelming now that he’s in his mid-30s.
This situation will be a tricky one for Winnipeg to navigate. Not only are there salary cap ramifications for the Jets to deal with, as discussed on Twitter by Frank Seravalli, but the loss of Byfuglien would leave the Jets completely decimated on the blueline. If Byfuglien doesn’t play, it would mean the Jets lost him, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot in one swoop. That’s four of their top five defenders in terms of ice-time from last season.
Byfuglien is currently pencilled in as Winnipeg’s top right-handed defenceman, expected to man the team’s first pair with the recently re-signed Josh Morrissey. A Byfuglien-less Jets would mean Neal Pionk or rookie Sami Niku is thrust into top-pairing minutes. Even if Connor Hellebuyck bounces back to 2017-18 a Vezina-calibre level and the Jets have a thriving offence, it’s hard to imagine Jets earn a playoff spot in a loaded Central Division with that ugly blueline.
There’s a lot up in the air for Winnipeg right now. They have no idea if their top-pairing defenceman is going to play this season and they still have two key restricted free agents without contracts.
Kyle Connor has flown under the radar because of other RFA contract sagas while Patrik Laine is the league’s new soap opera since Mitch Marner signed a long-term deal. Laine has complained about his usage in Winnipeg and is now reportedly practicing with SC Bern of the Swiss League. The Jets have about $15 million in salary cap room to deal with their two unsigned forwards, but, as a notoriously small-budget and conservative organization, they won’t be caving into overpays for either Connor or Laine.
If Byfuglien does end up out of the mix, the Jets could look to turn their problems into a solution. They have an abundance of talent up front and a now glaring need on the blueline. That’s where the Oilers come in. Edmonton, as we know, needs another game-changing forward. They also have some depth on the blueline that could help the Jets.
Darnell Nurse is on his way to being Edmonton’s tricky RFA next summer. He’s coming off of a two-year bridge deal, has two more control years left, and, if he plays like he did last season, will command a salary over $6 million annually. Could a Nurse for Laine or Connor deal work out for both sides? Winnipeg would have to take some salary back in order for it to work, but it checks off boxes for both sides.
What about Adam Larsson? He’s only under contract for two more seasons and would nicely fit into Winnipeg’s potentially-open spot on the top-right pairing. Could him and a sweetener, like another disgruntled unsigned Finn, make a deal work? On the other hand, would acquiring a former World Junior teammate in Laine make Jesse Puljujarvi more inclined to give playing with the Oilers another chance?
What about a more under-the-radar deal? Both Kris Russell and Mathieu Perreault are solid-but-overpaid depth players with two years left on their contracts. Perreault would be a great addition to Edmonton’s middle-six while Russell would greatly help eat minutes on a young blueline.
I doubt a deal would happen any time soon, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season goes along. Laine and Connor need to ink deals prior to Dec. 1 in order to play in the NHL this season, so any realistic deal involving these players would have to happen before then. That would give Edmonton enough time to determine whether or not a prospect like Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, or even William Lagesson was capable of stepping up and taking on a larger-than-expected role this season. This could also all be moot if Byfuglien returns to the Jets.
It’s hard to say if anything will actually transpire, but it’s very clear that the Jets and Oilers would make interesting trading partners over the next few months.