As the Winnipeg Jets surprised a lot of people this season by contending for a playoff spot at the time of the pause, one of the biggest stories following the team had nothing to do with what was happening on the ice.
Dustin Byfuglien, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound, mountain of a defenceman who manned the Jets’ blue line for eight years, didn’t play a game for the team in 2019-20. After first contemplating retirement, Byfuglien missed camp, was suspended by the team, and then had surgery on an injury to try and return instead. It all led to a grievance filed by the NHLPA on Byfuglien’s behalf, which has been going on since November.
But it all came to an end on Friday, with the mutual termination of his contract. Byfuglien is walking away from the remaining $14 million and two years left on his deal and will become an unrestricted free agent.
Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke to the media and was able to shine a light on a process that left many in the dark.
Here’s a timeline of how the situation broke down from beginning to end.
Sept. 11: The night before training camp
Cheveldayoff explained that Byfuglien had asked to meet him the night before the team opened camp, and that’s where the player said he wasn’t sure if he had another NHL season in him. The GM noted it was an emotional and private conversation that will remain that way, but he asked Byfuglien if he wanted a trade. The answer was no.
“He just didn’t know if he had it in him to continue playing,” Cheveldayoff said.
“When Dustin first came and talked to me, my first initial reaction to the emotion was genuine concern. I care a lot about all my players. They have families. They have feelings. I wanted to make sure he was in a good spot. From the team standpoint, you have to adjust. From that point on, we were finding ways to adjust. You don’t put emotion into that.”
Sept. 12: The player and GM talk again at Byfuglien’s house
With a night to sleep on it, and camp opening, Cheveldayoff said this is where they decided the best next step was to give Byfuglien some time away from the team to “think through some things and to see if there was any change of direction or change of mind.”
September 13: The team works to guard Byfuglien’s privacy while calming fans
“There’s nothing sinister to this,” said head coach Paul Maurice, highlighting the team’s belief that with a little time and thought Byfuglien may be brought back into the fold.
Sept. 21: Cheveldayoff and Byfuglien meet again
Training camp rolled on for Winnipeg, but the season was creeping up and they had to know whether Byfuglien would be back in 2019-20 or not as they made their roster and dealt with cap implications. Byfuglien’s mind remains unchanged. He’s still not ready to play, though he tells his GM he’s not ready to retire either.
Cheveldayoff tells Byfuglien he will be suspended as a matter of procedure, something he reiterates in the media.
Oct. 3: Byfuglien changes his mind
This is the moment the Jets have been hoping for, but it also brings foreboding developments. Before getting back to the team, Byfuglien wants to have surgery first on his ankle. As he was under suspension at the time, the Jets say surgery falls outside their purview.
Oct. 10: Jets home opener
Byfuglien and his agent Ben Hankinson meet with Cheveldayoff again and reaffirm Byfuglien’s intent to return after recovering from surgery.
October 23: Byfuglien has surgery
With the surgery completed, a course can be charted for Byfuglien’s return to the Jets, who now hope to have him back in the New Year.
“It was done by a doctor that Dustin had seen the year prior as part of the medical evaluation process when he was injured in the prior season and deemed healthy to play,” said Cheveldayoff. “Obviously he had the surgery and it was something he felt he needed to take the next step.”
November 20: NHLPA files a grievance
The situation took a turn toward conflict when the NHLPA filed a grievance on Byfuglien’s behalf that challenged his suspension. Pressed on the issue, Cheveldayoff downplays the situation calling it “procedural.” Despite the grievance the Jets are still expecting Byfuglien to return to the team post-surgery.
January 2020: Byfuglien is supposed to begin skating but something changes
After the surgery, Cheveldayoff said Byfuglien’s rehab took him to a place where in January he was scheduled to get back on the ice again. However, at this time, Byfuglien’s agent informed the Jets GM that the defenceman was not going to continue working his way back to the NHL.
“We did have some further conversations at that time, the agent and myself, with respect to trying to see if there was a potential trade and play type of situation,” Cheveldayoff said. “It really wasn’t about that. Dustin didn’t want to play and we respected that in that fashion and obviously we went through the trade deadline in that matter.”
This conversation would be the last time Cheveldayoff and Byfuglien talked before Friday’s mutual contract termination. All following correspondence went through Hankinson.
Apr. 17: Jets and Byfuglien mutually terminate contract
Cheveldayoff confirmed this was not a financial settlement and that Byfuglien was walking away from the remaining $14 million on his contract. The termination officially made Byfuglien a free agent, though only he would know if an eventual return to the NHL somewhere else is something he wants to do.
“At the end of the day, everybody has a choice,” Cheveldayoff said. “Dustin’s choice was to be true to himself and not put himself, and maybe the team and everybody, in a difficult situation. He didn’t have it in him to continue to play. That’s the most honest thing he could say.”