Overall, it’s bad news that there’s no timetable for the return of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who is once again injured with a lower-body injury.
It’s a different lower-body ailment for Byfuglien, who isn’t that far removed from missing 15 games thanks to that last injury. The Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre reports that Byfuglien isn’t traveling with the Jets for their upcoming three-game road trip, and that he’ll be assessed again in a week. This is a negative update, as the early outlook was that Byfuglien wouldn’t miss much time.
Considering Byfuglien’s mammoth size, and the fact that he’s 33, I can’t help but wonder if the Jets are just going to need to make peace with injuries being a more frequent occurrence. Really, it’s remarkable that this hasn’t been a larger problem during Byfuglien’s career, as it almost defies logic that a human this large can mix mobility, grace, and violence in such an effective way.
But, really, consider the wear-and-tear.
Via Hockey Reference’s numbers, Byfuglien’s delivered 1,885 hits and blocked 781 shots over 864 regular-season games, and that doesn’t include playoff numbers. He’s accrued a lot of mileage as a menacing, high-usage defenseman, and maybe that’s truly adding up, although Byfuglien has been dynamite when he can play, generating an impressive 30 points in just 37 games in 2018-19.
Whether you look at his impact from a leadership or production standpoint, Byfuglien will clearly be missed.
That said, there are some silver linings, even if you have to squint your eyes a bit to see them.
The Jets can pivot trade deadline plans, if they feel it’s necessary.
Personally, if I were Kevin Cheveldayoff, I would still be more focused on strengthening the weak spot that is 2C, whether that means aiming for Matt Duchene or a less costly target such as Kevin Hayes. (Both are discussed in the latest 31 Thoughts column by Elliotte Friedman.)
Either way, the Jets have some clarity that Byfuglien will miss at least some time. Maybe that means going after a defenseman (right-handed or not) instead of a scorer, or perhaps Winnipeg will deem it worthwhile to go for both assets. If nothing else, it’s helpful that Byfuglien suffered this injury before the trade deadline, rather than after it.
Time to test other options.
The Jets get a little time to see who might be able to raise their games. Personally, I’d be most intrigued by Sami Niku. The 22-year-old hasn’t fared particularly well in limited work during 13 NHL games (12 this season), but his AHL numbers and strong word of mouth give the impression that the future is bright. Maybe he can show that such projections don’t need to be that far ahead?
Niku is a left-handed shot, while Byfuglien is a right-handed shot, but the Jets have had a bit of a glut of RHD, as we’ve seen from Buffy and Tyler Myers sometimes siphoning away opportunities from Jacob Trouba.
Both Trouba and Myers are on expiring $5.5 million cap hits, and it’s almost certain one will be gone after 2018-19, if not both considering Winnipeg’s impending cap crunch.
Getting a better idea of where Niku, Tucker Poolman, and other defensemen can fit into the mix could help Cheveldayoff make more informed decisions during the offseason.
Let the big guy rest.
The hidden benefit of injuries is that they often force workhorse players to take a breather.
As mentioned up top, Byfuglien’s been through a ton of battles. While Winnipeg likely wants to strengthen its already comfortable grip on the Central Division crown, the Jets should prioritize heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as healthy as possible.
Really, the Jets might want to consider resting other players alongside Buffy, particularly Blake Wheeler, who’s played a lot of hockey in his own right at age 32.
Again, this is bad news overall. That’s especially true if Byfuglien won’t be 100 percent by April.
Still, the Jets are in a good position to absorb this loss, and maybe gather some helpful intel in the process.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.