The Winnipeg Jets blue line was a big point of uncertainty entering training camp and has now exploded into a Big Buff-sized question mark with the news another of the club’s top defencemen from last year may not be with the team for the 2019-20 season.
The Jets initially tamped down outside concerns when Dustin Byfuglien was recently granted leave from the organization. Such cases are often linked to difficult personal or family circumstances, but the message coming out of Winnipeg indicated that was not the case with Byfuglien. On Wednesday, rumblings that may yet grow into a roar suggest the 34-year-old may be seriously contemplating stepping away from hockey, the grind of the game — and the injuries that often come with playing it — robbing him of the devotion required to play hockey at the highest level.
A similar story unfolded in the NFL just a few weeks ago, when star Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck decided enough was enough and hung up his cleats at age 29.
Exactly what’s going through Byfuglien’s head is impossible to know. What we can say for sure is, without him an already-thin defence corps would officially be in tatters following a summer that also saw Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot leave Winnipeg.
No Jets rearguard has averaged more ice time per game in the past two seasons than the 24:21 put up by Byfuglien. Trouba is No. 2 in that category, Josh Morrissey No. 3, Myers No. 4 and Chiarot comes in at five. Right now, the only person from that group we know will be in the lineup on opening night is Morrissey.
Winnipeg was already counting on the likes of Neal Pionk — acquired in the trade that sent Trouba to the New York Rangers — Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman to push for prominent roles within the top six. Dmitry Kulikov, who’s been slowed by injuries for two consecutive seasons after signing as a free agent with Winnipeg in 2017, was also a candidate to step up. Now, we’re staring at a situation where the Jets could require all of those guys to play over their heads, while Morrissey would suddenly be promoted to the role of No. 1 D-man whether he’s ready or not.
It’s hard not to feel for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who already had a lot on his plate with unsigned RFAs Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine twisting in the wind. It’s also difficult not to wonder if the solution to a couple problems could come with one strike.
Considering its well-established track record of shrewd selections, give Winnipeg time and it could likely draft its way out of this issue. But with a crop of fantastic forwards, you have to believe — even if Buff steps away — the Jets will remain in win-now mode. Justin Faulk’s name is the most enticing one believed to be on the market, as the 27-year-old, right-shot defenceman appears to be the odd man out on a stacked Carolina Hurricanes blue line. Even with just one year remaining on his contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, acquiring Faulk would require parting with something of significance.
Could that be Laine? Of all the RFA standoffs still going on, the one happening between Winnipeg and Laine seems the furthest away from finding common ground. If you could move Laine and wind up with two significant pieces on the back end — if it was Carolina, Faulk would be just part of the return — surely that’s a deal worth exploring, especially if it allows you to ink Connor and move forward with a patched up defence and a forward crew that still contains Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers.
As it stands right now, though, every defenceman in the Jets fold is going to get a long, hard look as management tries to sort through this mess. “Sometimes all you need to see a huge improvement in a player is an opportunity,” Morrissey told me on the eve of camp, when we were still just talking about Trouba, Myers and Chiarot leaving. “You see a guy completely come out of his shell with a little more opportunity.”
That may be the case. But if this Byfuglien news does, in fact, turn into another blue line blow, outside intervention may become necessary.