Why Dustin Byfuglien is the 34th most important NHL player

Sean Reynolds reports from Winnipeg where the Jets are prepared to hit the ice with lineup questions concerning the contracts of Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd.

Dustin Byfuglien is many things to many people: a good-times guy and a fan favourite, a staunch defender of team honour by way of dress-code enforcement, a paunchy defensive liability and a gritty offensive powerhouse patrolling the blueline—it all depends on whom you ask.

And with Byfuglien set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, the operative question in Winnipeg this season is whether he should be dangled as trade bait to shore up his team’s weaknesses or locked down to secure its future with him as a key component. The answer will say a lot about where the Jets are going in the immediate future, and how they plan to author another crack at the playoffs in Manitoba.

Byfuglien built a solid case for his value last season, collecting 45 points, 209 shots and 124 PIM with a plus-minus of plus-5 through 69 games. Defensively, it was his first season with a positive plus-minus since his 2008–09 campaign with Chicago. Now, in the final season of a five-year, $26-million contract, the 30-year-old has plenty of reasons to step up his game—and the less-than-impressive fitness level that has made him a polarizing player.

The thing is, no matter what kind of performance Byfuglien turns in, it might make more sense for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to move the big-personality defenceman, given the overall state of the roster. Winnipeg could use an upgrade at forward, and with exciting young blueliners Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers on deck, Byfuglien is the most obvious odd man out.

At the trade deadline, the Jets may have tipped their hand about which way they’re heading when they acquired Myers and forward Drew Stafford from Buffalo in exchange for a package that included forward Evander Kane and defenceman Zach Bogosian. The addition of Stafford allowed Byfuglien to move back to a defensive role after subbing in as a forward—versatility that earned the praise of Paul Maurice.

“I absolutely love the guy,” the Jets head coach said shortly before Winnipeg’s ecstatic return to the NHL playoffs ended in a sweep at the hands of Anaheim. “You know, I’ve moved him up and back . . . and he keeps that room light.”

Byfuglien’s cap hit is $5.2 million this season, meaning Winnipeg’s possible dance partners on the trade market are limited. But for the Jets, the biggest hole to fill if Byfuglien departs may be the personality deficit left by the guy who lights up the dressing room.

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