The initial reaction from many fanbases to last Friday’s news that the Winnipeg Jets and Dustin Byfuglien had mutually terminated his contract, thus making him a free agent, was likely: “Hey, does that mean he could sign with my team?”
If Byfuglien — who was undecided about continuing his career before having ankle surgery and then couldn’t commit to the Jets afterwards — does one day return to the NHL, you can bet just about every team in the league would be calling his agent. He’s truly unique with a massive six-foot-five, 260-pound frame, and is a player who dominates all over the ice. There is probably no other more physically imposing player in the league and he can score, too, notching at least 50 points in four of the past seven 82-game seasons.
But until Byfuglien himself speaks of his intentions, we’re all just guessing whether or not he’ll play in the NHL again.
“I would be shocked if he ever plays again. Shocked. But I mean, you never know I guess,” Kris Versteeg told Hockey Central last week. Versteeg and Byfuglien know each other from their time with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It’s also worth noting that even though Byfuglien is officially a free agent right now, he wouldn’t be able to help anyone’s Stanley Cup run if the league is able to return to complete the 2020 playoffs. He would be free to join a team and — hypothetically at least — fit in regular-season games. But to qualify for a playoff roster, you have to have been on that team’s reserve list at the trade deadline and since Byfuglien was a Jet, he couldn’t play for anyone else in the post-season.
But at 35 years old, with a recent injury significant enough to require surgery, and an entire season of games lost, it’s also reasonable to ponder what version of Byfuglien any prospective team would be getting. Would he return as the game-changing, do-everything defenceman? Or would he be a lesser version of that?
In the weird times we’re in right now, it’s difficult to project where a player may end up because we don’t even know what the salary cap will be moving forward. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NHL’s economy has yet to be fully understood. But if we assume the cap stays flat, or relatively close to that, we can at least begin to see where it may make sense for Byfuglien to land … if he lands anywhere at all.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
It wouldn’t be easy but the Leafs are here only because, as a Cup hopeful with at least one obvious flaw, they’ll be as aggressive as they can be to fix that. So, any time a right-shot defenceman of significance becomes available, Toronto should have some degree of interest.
To start, this could only happen if Byfuglien wanted to come to the Leafs and took less than likely market value. That’s because the Leafs are already having to deal with a cap crunch and have committed $76.9 million to the 2020-21 roster. That’s without including pending UFAs Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, and also without factoring in what RFA Travis Dermott will command. If the cap stays flat, that would leave Toronto with less than $5 million of space to start from.
Byfuglien would be nice in Toronto’s top four, but even on a value contract, the team may have to move some money around elsewhere. Would Leaf fans want Byfuglien instead of, say, Alexander Kerfoot? We’ll assume yes on the surface. But is this sort of investment, and the subsequent moves that would need to happen, worth it if you don’t even really know what Byfuglien has left?
One thing is for sure: after leaving $14 million on the table to step away from Winnipeg, money doesn’t appear to be a driving factor behind Byfuglien’s actions. We don’t know what’s driving him right now, but if there is any thought of him coming back to the bigs, then perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the draw of going home. Byfuglien is from Roseau, Minn., and played high school hockey there before leaving home to play at higher levels.
And the Wild could be a fit that makes sense for a few reasons. One: they wouldn’t have to tiptoe around the cap as much as Toronto. The Wild have $65.3 million committed to next season’s roster and if Mikko Koivu retires, the players they need to re-sign shouldn’t add up to too much. So Minnesota could offer a competitive salary.
Two: Trade rumours have been swirling around this team’s defence all season, in particular, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin. Even if both of them stay, Byfuglien could fall behind Jared Spurgeon and Dumba on the right side of their depth chart. But if Dumba, especially, were to be moved, the Wild could acquire some tasty assets and have “Big Buff” as a top-four replacement.
Three: While you have to wonder how legit a team is that was puttering along all season and then strung some wins together when it looked as though all hope was lost, we still have to note that the Wild seemed to be turning a corner before the pause. They were just one point out of the second wild-card spot and had a 15-7-1 record since mid-January. Byfuglien could jump in, be a difference-maker for his hometown team and have a shot at playoff games, too.
Let’s get crazy here.
As well as Byfuglien fit with the Jets and the city of Winnipeg, would he perhaps be interested in starting up again in a sunnier and warmer locale? Not to mention a team that has already made investments in winning (to middling results)?
The Panthers signed Sergei Bobrovsky to that massive, eight-year, $80-million UFA contract last summer that so far hasn’t worked out, but while he’s gotten all the negative press from his putrid numbers, he didn’t sink the season on his own. Florida’s defence was porous, allowing the ninth-most 5-on-5 high-danger chances per NaturalStatTrick, and the 10th-most shots per game overall. If Florida wants to come back stronger, it’ll need to upgrade the defence corps.
There could be an opportunity to do it, too, though a ton of roster questions hang over this team. Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, Florida’s top two goal scorers, are UFAs, as is Erik Haula, who was the main piece coming back in the Vincent Trocheck trade. They have a few young forwards ready or near-ready to graduate to the NHL and four defencemen who are signed through at least the 2021-22 season.
But they’ve also shown in the past year or two a real desire to push this thing ahead and, if that means shaking it up again this off-season, we shouldn’t be surprised. Byfuglien has a history with GM Dale Tallon and head coach Joel Quenneville, too — they all won a Cup together with Chicago in 2010.