Back when Dustin Byfuglien mentioned at the all-star game a couple of weeks ago that he had “no problem” with Winnipeg and that it really was his kind of town, there was an odd reaction.
The feeling among some was Byfuglien had nine toes out the door, that if he couldn’t muster any more enthusiasm than that for his current place of employ, then surely his days playing for the Jets were nearing an end.
What that overlooked was context – and Byfuglien’s personality. He’s never been much for hyperbole; no one’s ever seen him gush. He said what he thought: Winnipeg had become his home; he had faith in the Jets’ team-building strategy; and all things being equal, he’d prefer to stay.
It may be that no one actually believed him – until Monday that is, when the Jets announced they’d signed him to a five-year contract extension worth $7.6-million (U.S.) annually.
It made Byfuglien the Jets’ highest-paid player by far (ahead of Blake Wheeler at $5.6-million) and, from a broader league perspective, it took the No. 1 trade chip off the board heading into the NHL’s Feb. 29 trading deadline.
Many of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s peers were waiting to see how the negotiations proceeded, not completely convinced the Jets would make their most intriguing player available for trade unless absolutely necessary.
Not only is the 30-year-old Byfuglien one of the NHL’s most versatile players, his size makes him impossibly hard to move off the puck once he has it in his possession. The fact that the Jets were able to limit the term to five years represents a major concession from the Byfuglien camp.
But on a year-over-year basis, he will earn more than Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf ($7-million a season for seven years) and Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano ($6.75-million average for six years), both of whom have done new deals within the past 24 months.
Byfuglien is second in the NHL in goals by a defenceman this year (with 15) and leads the Jets in shots, penalty minutes and, most crucially, ice time (24 minutes 14 seconds a game).
“It never really crossed my mind to go anywhere else,” Byfuglien told reporters Monday in St. Louis, where the Jets were preparing to play the Blues Tuesday night. “I’m excited to be a Jet. We’ve got a good group of guys here who I’ve been with for a while now. Watching the process of everyone coming up – and what we’ve got coming – I believe in what they’re trying to do around here.
“You can’t win a Stanley Cup overnight. It’s a process. I feel they’re in the right state – so I thought I’d run with them.”
The Jets made the playoffs last year for the first time since relocating from Atlanta, but they seem destined to miss out this year. The constant uncertainty surrounding Byfuglien’s status as well as that of team captain Andrew Ladd, who is also a potential unrestricted free agent, has been something of a season-long distraction.
“This year, we’re not sitting right, but we’re not out of it,” Byfuglien said. “As a group, we have the pieces … I don’t feel this organization is far from winning.”
Asked if his best hockey was still in front of him, Byfuglien answered: “I believe so. As the years have gone by, I feel every year I’ve gotten a little better and better, matured more and figured out how to be a pro better.”Report Typo/Error