Jets, Dustin Byfuglien agree to terminate contract

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff chooses to remember the good times with Dustin Byfuglien.

The hulking defenceman’s crushing body checks, his unique style, the mind games in heated playoff series, the ability to ragdoll two opponents out of a scrum, and that booming slapshot.

Those fond memories, however, don’t make Friday’s official parting of ways any easier.

In a joint statement released by the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, the Jets and Byfuglien announced the sides have agreed to a mutual contract termination, bringing an end to a strained relationship between the team and a former face of the franchise.

“This was never our desired outcome or ending with Dustin,” Cheveldayoff said on a conference call. “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 centre ice and flashing that great, big smile.

“But we’re grateful for the time that we did have with Dustin here. He was a force of nature on and off the ice. He has a tremendously infectious personality that you can’t help but like the person. He played a significant role on our team for a long time.”

Byfuglien, who walked away from $7.6 million US both this season and next, and did not receive a financial settlement, had been a staple with the organization since its last season in Atlanta as the Thrashers following a trade with Chicago in the wake of the Blackhawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup victory.

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A fan favourite for everything mentioned above, he was a four-time all-star with the Thrashers/Jets, while also serving as a long-time alternate captain.

But things turned sour at the beginning of this season.

Leave of absence

Byfuglien, who signed a five-year, $38 million contract extension to stay in the Manitoba capital in February 2016, was granted a leave of absence for personal reasons on the eve of training camp.

“We met in my office that evening, and he informed me he didn’t know if he had it in him to continue playing in the NHL,” said Cheveldayoff, who declined to reveal much about the situation before Friday. “We connected again together [Sept. 21] and had another long conversation. We were getting to the point where we had to start making some roster decisions and [salary] cap decisions. I asked him if there has been a change. He said he still didn’t want to retire, but still didn’t know that he had it in him to continue to play.

“I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to suspend you.’ He understood.”

Cheveldayoff, whose relationship with Byfuglien goes back to his tenure as an assistant GM in Chicago, said the Jets were informed in early October he intended to resume his career following ankle surgery later that month.

Byfuglien, who Cheveldayoff said didn’t communicate any health issues over the summer, then filed a grievance through the NHLPA believing he should be paid while recovering from a hockey injury. He rehabbed into January, but didn’t proceed to the point where he got back on skates, which ultimately brought the sides to Friday’s announcement.

“We certainly live in a time right now when we all understand that things do happen that are sometimes unexpected,” Cheveldayoff said. “It’s about how we choose to move on.

“Dustin still remains, in my estimation, a tremendous person.”

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If this is the end of the NHL line for the six-foot-five, 260-pound native of Roseau, Minn. — a dominant force who could play defence or forward — he will be remembered for his unique abilities in a game that’s seen many bigger players mostly fall by the wayside.

“It shows his hockey sense and his ability to adapt,” Cheveldayoff said. “Buff loved to play the game a certain way. He played it physical.”

The 35-year-old has 177 goals, 525 points and 1,094 penalty minutes in 869 regular-season games with Chicago and Atlanta/Winnipeg. Byfuglien has added 21 goals and 50 points in 66 playoff outings.

“He could intimidate you because of his size, but he really wasn’t that dirty of a player,” Cheveldayoff added. “He likes to play with having an impact on a game.

“Sometimes there was high risk and sometimes there was high reward.”

Byfuglien’s absence this season was a massive double blow to a Jets’ defence that also lost Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot over the summer. They were not only minus one of their best players, but the uncertainty of the situation also meant Cheveldayoff was unable to use the vacant $7.6 million cap hit to improve his team.

“You can sit there and say [we] would have done this or would have done that, but at the end of the day everybody’s got a choice,” Cheveldayoff said. “Dustin’s choice was to be true to himself.

“If he really didn’t have it in him to continue to play, that’s probably the most honest thing.”

Winnipeg managed to stay competitive in 2019-20 thanks in large part to the Vezina Trophy-calibre goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck, and was in a playoff spot when the NHL paused its season March 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m really actually quite proud of the job that the coaches, but more so that the players did to adjust,” Cheveldayoff said. “Hopefully we can continue and finish off what is certainly a very difficult year.”

So will we ever see Byfuglien, who is now a free agent and can sign with any team for next season, suit up again in the NHL?

“There’s only one person and one person only who can answer,” Cheveldayoff said. “And that’s Dustin.”

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