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No timetable for return of Jets’ Byfuglien

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Jets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning lead the NHL with 76 points, the Western Conference has a tighter race at the top, especially in the Central Division, where Winnipeg currently owns the top spot and has four games in hand on the second-place Nashville Predators.

The Jets are currently on pace for 109 points and 52 wins. Last season, the team set franchise records in both wins (52) and points (114), but they still didn’t win the division (Nashville did w/ NHL-best 117 pts).

All-Stars Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are top two on the team in points at 61 and 59, respectively. Kyle Connor is next with 38. Wheeler, tied for ninth in the NHL in points, is second in the league in assists (52) and although his streak of 20-goal seasons may end at five given he has only nine goals, he’s on pace for 104 points, which would be a career high and break Marian Hossa’s franchise record of 100.

In addition to the All-Star break, both teams are coming off their bye weeks, each having last played on Saturday, Jan. 19.

One of the bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference, the Flyers sit 14 points back of a playoff spot and are on track to continue their trend of missing the postseason the year after making it. From 1995-2012, the Flyers made the playoffs 16 times in a 17-season span. Since then, Philly has made just three postseasons in the last six years and each in alternating years.

Wayne Simmonds, a popular name in trade talks ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline, has played in all 48 games this season and put up 15 goals but just 23 points. He’s on track for his sixth straight season with 24-plus goals but only 39 points, which would be his fewest in a full season since 2011.

The Flyers are 7-8-2 since interim coach Scott Gordon took over for Dave Hakstol. The coaching change was one of several moves in what has been a tumultuous season for the team that has also included letting go of GM Ron Hextall and replacing him with Chuck Fletcher.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Monday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik LaineBryan LittleJack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers
Joe Morrow – Sami Niku

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

FLYERS
James van RiemsdykClaude GirouxTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonNolan Patrick – Wayne Simmonds
Phil Varone – Mikhail Vorobyev – Michael Raffl

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereAndrew MacDonald
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

Jets prepared for Western Conference showdown vs. Golden Knights

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Patrik Laine hasn’t forgotten how the Western Conference Final turned out. After the Winnipeg Jets topped the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1, 4-2, the NHL’s newest expansion team didn’t lose again in the series en route to a place in the Stanley Cup Final.

So when the Golden Knights visit the Jets Tuesday night at MTS Centre, some revenge will be on the minds of Laine and his teammates.

“Obviously, they kicked our ass in the playoffs,” Laine said Monday. “We want to win [Tuesday] and get the two points.”

The two points will be huge for either team as the Jets, who have played the fewest games (45) among the top three teams in the Central Division, look to extend their division lead, and the Golden Knights try to remain red-hot and chip away at the Calgary Flames’ lead in the Pacific Division.

Both teams have a pair of tests this week after the conference final rematch Tuesday. Vegas heads home to welcome a Pittsburgh Penguins team on Saturday that’s playing very well. Winnipeg hops on a plane to visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday.

“The games will bring their own intensity,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Against the teams that aren’t right now in the playoff picture, our record is spectacular. So we haven’t taken anybody lightly. The challenges for us these next two games aren’t that. It would be playing well against good teams when you’re in the middle of a pretty good grinder missing some guys (Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers). Not excuses.”

Tuesday’s matchup will also be the first time Paul Stastny sees his old pals since leaving in free agency during the summer. After an October injury kept him sidelined for two months, the 33-year-old forward has resumed compliling the points and has 13 in 18 games this season.

Stastny’s return has certainly helped Vegas in their second year to maintain the successful results they experienced in 2017-18. A slow start to the season has turned into a two-month run that’s seen them take 43 out of a possible 56 points over their last 28 games (20-5-3).

Maybe another rematch in mid-May is in the cards?

“Now they look as powerful, if not more, than they did at any point last year. They’re a year further into their program,” Maurice said. “They still have that real veteran team. They don’t have a lot of kids in that lineup. And they’re deep. They’ll go four lines all night long.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Jets take on Wild in Central Division clash

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Minnesota is coming off a 4-0 shutout loss in Boston on Tuesday night, which snapped a three-game winning streak. This game is the Wild’s first home game in 201, and the team is looking to snap a four-game losing streak at Xcel Energy Center.

They’ve dropped six of their last eight home games (2-5-1) after going 8-2-2 in their first 12 games at home.

Zach Parise, one of the “Last Men In” All-Star candidates, has 38 points (19G-19A) in 41 games this season, and is averaging 0.93 points/game, his best since 2009-10 (averaged 1.01). He leads the team in goals (19) and has nine points (4G-5A) in the last seven games.

It was Winnipeg’s stars who all shined bright in Tuesday’s win vs. Colorado, with Blake Wheeler recording four pts (1G-3A), and Mark Scheifele (1G-2A) and Jacob Trouba each recording 3 pts (1G-2A).

While the Jets are in good playoff position entering the second half of the season, the team is focused on trying to become a more consistent force, and are trying to use last years’ experience of reaching the Western Conference Final to help lead to another successful run.

“We’re happy with where we’re at in the standings… but overall, as good as we’ve played, we know we have another level that we can get to,” said Bryan Little. “It only gets harder from here. For us, it’s just to elevate our game and to get ready for that.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Thursday, Jan. 10, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Patrik Laine – Bryan Little – Jack Roslovic
Mathieu PerreaultAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppMason Appleton

Josh Morrissey – Jacob Trouba
Ben ChiarotTyler Myers
Dmitry KulikovJoe Morrow

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

WILD
Jordan GreenwayEric StaalNino Niederreiter
Zach Parise – Charlie CoyleLuke Kunin
Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkMatt Hendricks

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinGreg Pateryn
Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

John Walton (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Jets-Wild from Xcel Energy Center. Tappen, Milbury and Jeremy Roenick will anchor studio coverage.

Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

***

Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

***

The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

***

Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

***

Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.