NASHVILLE — It probably wasn’t exactly the resounding answer for which Winnipeg hockey fans were hoping.
Like Steven Stamkos, Dustin Byfuglien was asked about his impending free agent status at All-Star Weekend here in Music City on Friday. But while Stamkos has insisted repeatedly his preference is to remain with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Byfuglien wasn’t quite as insistent when asked about his future with the Winnipeg Jets, saying he has “no problem” with playing in Manitoba.
“I just want to put on a jersey, to be honest with you. I don’t mind Winnipeg at all,” said Byfuglien.
At least it was an answer of some kind, not just silence. Jets media and fans hear very infrequently from the man they call Big Buff, and when they do, it’s usually a few mumbled answers while staring at the ceiling or at his shoes.
Among the NHL elite, Byfuglien is probably the most elusive. Other than saying earlier this year he wasn’t a fan of 3-on-3 overtime play, he’s offered little for public consumption this season.
But on all-star media day, the 30-year-old defenceman was charming, funny, open and honest about a number of subjects, including his future in Winnipeg.
He’s in the final year of a five-year contract that comes with a $5.2 million cap hit and pays him $6 million in salary this season. A native of Roseau, Minn., Byfuglien said Winnipeg offers many of the same lifestyle options as his hometown.
“It’s close to home, closest I’ll ever get to playing near my home,” he said. “So many good things I like about Winnipeg. I can do the outdoors stuff I like to do. I have no problem being up there.”
At the same time, Byfuglien said being able to pursue those activities isn’t necessarily a deal breaker in where he wants to play.
“Most places have a lake, so at least I can pull my boat down there and go fishing either way,” he said. “They have streams where I can go fly-fishing, as well.
“It’s not a big factor in everything. It’ll be there when I retire.”
For the most part, Byfuglien says he has left the negotiations on a possible new deal with the Jets to his agent, Ben Hankinson, and stayed out of it.
“It’s been okay. I’ve actually been pretty good with it. It’s something I just told my agent, don’t talk to me about it. If things get close, let me know, we’ll have a quick chat about it. He’s got a job to do. I’ve got a job to do. I just go to work everyday,” he said.
“I haven’t let it affect me too much. I think my wife has gotten more emotional about it than I have.”
The belief these days is that the Jets are trying to work out a new contract with Byfuglien, which seems likely to produce a cap hit north of $8 million if a deal is struck. At the same time, captain Andrew Ladd is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the second. Plus. several of the team’s better young players will be restricted free agents and there’s the possibility the Jets may have to look at trading Byfuglien before the Feb. 29 deadline.
“I just go to work every day. If I’m going somewhere else, the Internet will probably tell me before they will,” he said laughing. “I don’t want to hear it. I just want to have a good season. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”
He said he and Ladd are both aware of their contractual status with a Winnipeg team that currently has the lowest payroll in hockey.
“We talk, obviously. We’re pretty close friends. It comes up,” he said. “It’s stressful. I’m an easy-going guy, so I don’t talk hockey with him very often. We just talk about other things or kids or life outside of hockey.”
Byfuglien also continues to be an opponent of 3-on-3 play for overtime.
“For me, it’s just a tough way to decide the win, 3-on-3. Let’s keep it 5-on-5 and make it a hockey game,” he said. “But I guess it kind of is a little fun out there when it’s 3-on-3, there’s so much room.”
For the All-Star Game, the league has included a $1 million cash prize for the winner of a four-team, 3-on-3 mini-tournament.
Byfuglien doesn’t think the cash will motivate players to compete harder.
“No. Not really,” he said. “It’s just something to play for. We don’t need it, really.”