There is a thread hanging off the Winnipeg Jets this training camp.
If you pull on it hard enough, it’s not difficult to imagine the 2019-20 season unravelling before it even begins.
Wednesday’s bombshell that blueliner Dustin Byfuglien has arrived at a career crossroads – he’s believed to be using his personal leave of absence from the team to contemplate retirement – tugged on that narrative in a big way.
There is no timetable for a decision. The belief is the Jets, who haven’t publicly commented on Byfuglien’s status, are willing to give Byfuglien all the time he needs.
Because losing ‘Big Buff’ would be, well, an enormous problem for the Jets.
Byfuglien, 34, would become the fifth defenceman to play at last half of last season’s games to not return this year, including Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow.
In the absence of those four, Byfuglien – Winnipeg’s leader in average ice time for each of the last four seasons – was going to be counted on to bite off an even bigger chunk of the game.
Byfuglien has missed 53 games over the last two seasons. His battle with injuries (including a concussion last season) makes you wonder if Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s decision to step away from the NFL at 29 at the apex of his career in August had any impact on his thought process.
Byfuglien would potentially be walking away from $14 million in salary if he retired. He has earned more than $66 million in his career, according to CapFriendly.com.
Byfuglien was as impactful as ever when he was on the ice last season.
He collected 31 points in just 42 games - the second-highest points per game mark of his career. Byfuglien led the Jets with eight points in their first-round series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. He had points in five of six playoff games.
There is something so captivating about Byfuglien’s game. His sheer size married to those soft hands, his booming shot, his reckless abandon style, even the little shimmy-shake at the blueline after a goal.
Off the ice, Byfuglien’s private nature made him more of a mystery. His love for fishing – and even ice fishing during Winnipeg’s long winters – is well known.
Talk to those around the Jets and they’ll say Byfuglien’s laid-back personality made him an integral part of Winnipeg’s leadership team. He acted as a buffer, or in this case a ‘Buffer’, to captain Blake Wheeler’s admittedly intense approach.
Now, adding to the mystery is the unending list of questions that have surfaced in the wake of Byfuglien’s leave of absence, about both the future and the recent past of the Jets.
Clearly, the Jets must have been blindsided by Byfuglien’s notice on the eve of training camp. If they had any inkling that this was a possibility, would GM Kevin Cheveldayoff have approached this off-season differently?
Could the Jets have re-signed their other twin tower on defence in Tyler Myers? Would the Jets have forced their hand on restricted free agent Jacob Trouba and gone to arbitration to keep him under club control, even if they knew it was only going to be for one season?
There is no question that Trouba wanted to play in an American market. The primary reason, which he revealed after his June trade to the Rangers, was so that his fiancée could pursue her medical career.
But at the very least, the Jets’ leverage on a return for Trouba’s rights could have been different if teams knew that Winnipeg had the potential salary cap flexibility to keep him.
The questions, and permutations, about the Jets’ path forward are equally endless.
What do the Jets do from a salary cap perspective if Byfuglien’s decision lingers into the regular season?
There are three scenarios:
1) The Jets can list him as ‘active non-roster’ while he takes personal leave. He will not take up a spot on the 23-man roster, but the Jets will have to account for his $7.6 million cap hit.
2) The Jets can suspend him and petition the NHL for his salary cap hit to not count while he’s away from the team. (Every day his cap hit is saved, the Jets could bank valuable space used for restricted free agents Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine if they are not signed)
3) If Byfuglien does officially retire, his contract would be wiped from the books and the Jets would no longer be tied to his cap hit.
If Byfuglien does decide to play, how impactful will he be? There will undoubtedly be questions about his conditioning. Byfuglien only appeared in one informal skate in Winnipeg. He did not participate in Da Beauty League, an off-season scrimmage series for pros in Minnesota organized in part by his agent, Ben Hankinson, after playing the last few summers.
And if Byfuglien decides to step away from the game, how exactly will the Jets fill his void?
Would the Jets target either Carolina’s Justin Faulk or Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen? They are just two of the right-shooting defencemen whose names have run through the rumour mill. With the immediate futures of Connor and Laine uncertain, the Jets are already thin up front, leaving Cheveldayoff without very many palatable trade chips.
Maybe the simple answer is that Big Buff can’t be replaced, or at least not in such short order, and the Jets will have to do everything they can to cobble this once Stanley Cup contender together.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli