Dustin Byfuglien and the Winnipeg Jets agreed to mutually terminate his contract Friday, potentially marking the end of a playing career for “Big Buff.”
The agreement ended a lengthy dispute between Byfuglien and the organization over his absence this season. Because there was no financial settlement as part of the termination, the defenseman walked away from the $14 million remaining on his contract with no guarantee he’ll play again.
“This was never our desired outcome or ending with Dustin,” Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on a conference call with reporters. “If it were the Jets writing the perfect script, it would’ve ended with Dustin holding a great, big silver trophy over his head at center ice and flashing that great, big smile of his.”
In reality, it ended seven months after Byfuglien told the Jets he’d lost the desire to play and following surgery in October to repair an ankle injury, which prompted a grievance filed through the NHL Players’ Association and settled Friday.
It wasn’t clear how much Byfuglien wavered about returning to play. Cheveldayoff broached the possibility of trading him on multiple occasions, and came away questioning whether a change of scenery would make a difference for Byfuglien.
Cheveldayoff said, “There’s only one person and one person only who can answer if he’ll ever play again, and that’s Dustin.”
Agent Ben Hankinson told The Associated Press by email that Byfuglien doesn’t have anything to say and “will take some time to decide” on his future.
The 35-year-old Byfuglien patrolled the ice at multiple positions for 14 NHL seasons with a rare blend of size, skill and power. He hasn’t played since Winnipeg’s first-round playoff series last April, and is now an unrestricted free agent. It’s unclear when he would be allowed to sign with any team because the NHL’s season is on hold due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
The league hasn’t decided when it will resume play and whether it will skip the remainder of the regular season and open with the playoffs. At the very least, Byfuglien would be ineligible to compete in this year’s playoffs.
A person familiar with the situation told The AP that Byfuglien was healthy enough to return playing, which is why he was no longer eligible to collect on his contract. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because that information was not revealed in the announcement released by the NHL and union.
Cheveldayoff said he didn’t harbor any animosity toward Byfuglien despite having no indication this was coming last offseason, when the Jets lost defenseman Tyler Myers in free agency and traded Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers because of salary-cap concerns. Winnipeg was further depleted by injuries this season and handcuffed from making moves by Byfuglien’s uncertain status.
“Dustin’s choice was to be true to himself and not put himself and maybe the team and everybody in a difficult situation,” Cheveldayoff said. “If he really didn’t have it in him to continue to play, that’s probably the most honest thing that he could say.”
If Byfuglien hangs up his skates, his legacy will be that of a Stanley Cup-winner who switched positions and became one of the most feared blueliners of this era. Big hits and powerful slap shots allowed Byfuglien to make a difference all over the ice.
“He was a force of nature,” Cheveldayoff said. “He played it physical. He could intimidate you because of his size, but he really wasn’t that dirty of a player when it came to it.”
An eighth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003, Byfuglien made his NHL debut less than three years later and won the Cup with them as a winger in 2010. Chicago traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers that summer, and Byfuglien went with the franchise when it moved to Winnipeg in 2011.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Minnesota native has 177 goals and 348 assists in 869 regular-season games. Three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville, who had Byfuglien for two seasons with Chicago, said it was a privilege to argue over where he’d play to be most effective.
“That versatility was a great asset to have in playoff series,” Quenneville said. “Sometimes you could put him on a forward line to create space, I’d like to say, on power play net-front presence, but then you’ve got a big shot at the point. You could multitask with him in the course of the games.”