A lot of big storylines surrounding the Winnipeg Jets the past 12 months centred on issues the team could do without.
The Jets were ousted in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, triggering an off-season that was dominated by chatter about making up for huge departures on defence and how to get the names Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor on new contracts.
While the latter challenge came to a positive resolution before the regular season started in October, questions around the blue-line only got bigger when Dustin Byfuglien decided to step away from the team on the eve of training camp.
The status of “Big Buff” remains a front-burner issue as the calendar flips to a new year. Here’s a look at that storyline and a couple others that could create headlines around the Jets in 2020.
Dustin off the equipment yet?
The Byfuglien story was one of the odder ones, not just around the Jets, but the entire league. Recall, Byfuglien was originally granted leave by the Jets as he, we all assumed, contemplated hanging up his skates for good. Byfuglien was eventually suspended by Winnipeg, allowing the team relief from his $7.6-million cap hit. It wasn’t until the National Hockey League Players’ Association filed a grievance on Byfuglien’s behalf stating he should be collecting a paycheque because he was nursing a hockey-related injury that we all realized there was more to the story here.
The most recent development was at least slightly positive, as the Winnipeg Free Press reported just before Christmas that Byfuglien started post-surgery rehab on his ankle in consultation with the Jets.
Where this will all go remains a major question, especially because the defence corps could so desperately use a boost. With the off-season loss of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, the Jets have been getting by with a patchwork ‘D’ comprised of people who are largely in over their heads.
If everyone can kiss and make up, maybe Byfuglien — the all-time franchise leader in points by a D-man — can re-join the team for the final push in what is sure to be a down-to-the-wire playoff race.
If not Byfuglien, then who?
The likes of Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk have done all they can to staunch the bleeding, but the Jets’ losses on the blue line are too major to overcome without further intervention.
Even if Byfuglien returns — and that’s one big if — you could easily argue the Jets need to add another impact body on the back end. At each of the past two trade deadlines, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has sacrificed a first-round pick to acquire help at centre. Two years ago it was Paul Stastny and last season the Jets brought in Kevin Hayes.
Would Cheveldayoff consider a similar move if the opportunity to acquire a top-four defenceman with a little term left on his contract presented itself?
The Jets do have Ville Heinola in the fold, and the teenage Finn figures to be a full-timer next October. But that doesn’t do anything to help the team this year and the idea of missing the playoffs in a year when goalie Connor Hellebuyck is playing so well is tough to stomach.
What will Patrik Laine’s next contract be worth (and will he sign this summer)?
Yes, I swear we’re casting forward here and not just trying to re-open fresh Winnipeg wounds.
After signing a two-year bridge deal last September, Laine was challenged by the coaching staff to evolve from one-dimensional sniper to all-around threat. He’s done that and more. The 21-year-old Finn is on pace to nearly double his previous career high of 28 assists while averaging almost 20 minutes a night — basically two minutes more than he’d ever previously seen from coach Paul Maurice — on the top line with Connor and Mark Scheifele.
As for his bread and butter, December was Laine’s best goal-scoring month of this season by far and he could well end up with closer to 40 goals than 30 by April.
All that begs the question: Will Winnipeg make a run at inking the right winger to an extension next summer and get ahead of things or will this not play out until after July 1, 2021, when Laine once again becomes an RFA?