The Winnipeg Jets are rapidly approaching a crossroads with Dustin Byfuglien, who is both an important and a controversial player for the team. Flawed but also uniquely talented, Byfuglien will command a hefty, long-term contract as a free agent this summer. The choice the Jets have to make is whether they should be the team to give it to him.
It’s a given that Byfuglien will get such an offer from some team. He’s listed at 6’5” and 260 pounds; he’s one of the biggest defencemen in the game, and he isn’t shy about using that size. Despite this, he is a surprisingly mobile, even graceful, skater. He’s a right shot, which is often hard to find in free agency. Outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he has scored 45 or more points every single year since being dealt away as a salary cap sacrifice by the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2010.
Despite all that, Byfuglien’s actual effectiveness has come into question during his time with the Jets. He’s been bumped to forward at times, and he’s prone to highly visible defensive gaffes. Add in that he’ll be 31 when he reaches free agency in the summer and it isn’t a certainty he’ll be worth the contract he gets.
Offensively, there’s no question as to his brilliance. He ranks seventh among NHL defencemen (minimum 2,500 minutes played) in points/hour at five-on-five since 2010, just ahead of Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, to say nothing of Duncan Keith. He’s ninth among NHL defencemen (minimum 250 minutes played) in power play points/hour over the same span, just back of Erik Karlsson and just ahead of Kris Letang. Even allowing for Byfuglien’s stints at forward, he’s clearly among the league’s most potent blue liners.
His defensive work is a little harder to measure. It’s hard to dial in on a player’s individual two-way play, but we can observe what’s happened on the ice when he’s out there and compare it to what has happened when he’s on the bench.
Generally, these sorts of comparisons are highly favourable to Byfuglien. The Jets, and the Thrashers before them, have been dramatically better with Byfuglien on the ice than they have with him off in just about any category one could care to mention. They tend to out-Corsi, out-shoot, out-chance and out-score the opposition by better rates with Byfuglien out there than they do with Byfuglien at the bench.
There is, however, a counterargument. Because defencemen—even offensive ones like Byfuglien—have more impact preventing scoring chances than they do driving them, it’s worth considering how often chances occur when an individual defenceman is on the ice. Here’s how Byfuglien compares to his most regular teammates over the last five seasons:
Byfuglien lands comfortably in the top four in four of these five seasons, which given the amount of offence he generates and the fact he generally sees tougher-than-average opponents (there’s a reason Adam Pardy looks so good here) really isn’t bad. The exception is the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, which is the same year that it was reported in Winnipeg that the defenceman’s weight was over 300 pounds; it’s probably reasonable to view that as an aberration, albeit a concerning one.
On the whole, though, we can be comfortable that Byfuglien is a quality player in the here-and-now. He’s great offensively, he’s reasonably good defensively, and he can play against anyone. The question is, How much longer we can expect him to play at this level?
Most aging curves show that players hit their peak years around age 25. However, there’s some debate about whether defencemen fit that pattern to the same degree that forwards do. It’s hard to measure defencemen by scoring rates, and conventional wisdom suggests otherwise.
With that in mind, I went looking for players who, like Byfuglien, had played at least 1,500 minutes of ice time in their age-29 season and who had also scored at about the same rate as he had. Then I looked at when those players last did three things: (a) played at least 1,500 minutes, (b) averaged at least 0.45 points/game, and (c) left the league entirely. Here’s what I found:
Nine of 14 players were still logging heavy minutes six years after their age 29 season. Nine of 14 were also still scoring at a roughly a 40-point pace six seasons down the line. All but one was still in the league at the age of 35. Looking at the list, most of the early dropouts aren’t players like Byfuglien, but rather smaller finesse defencemen. Presumably Byfuglien’s size makes it more likely that he’ll stand up to the rigours of the league and will allow him to contribute in other ways if his scoring and/or speed decline.
Byfuglien’s a good player. Good defencemen, as a rule, have staying power. It’s probable that even five years out, a big contract for Byfuglien will be warranted. Given that, Winnipeg is probably best served by locking him down with a long-term contract.