After spending the past few seasons as one of the Western Conference's most explosive threats, the Winnipeg Jets have seemingly taken a step back thanks to a horrid offseason. The biggest blow to their chances in 2019-2020 may have come at the start of pre-season though, as it was revealed this week that the team's top defenseman, Dustin Byfuglien, is contemplating retirement.
Byfuglien, 34, was mysteriously missing when Jets camp opened last week. The team announced that they had granted Byfuglien a leave of absence, though didn't provide much detail surrounding the situation leading to his absence. Those details came on Wednesday morning, when TSN's Bob McKenzie reported that Byfuglien wasn't sure about his NHL future.
Byfuglien is a 14-year NHL vet and the longest-tenured Jets player, spending the last nine seasons with the franchise, including one season in Atlanta before the team relocated to Winnipeg. He has struggled to stay healthy in each of the past two seasons, playing just 42 games last season, recording just four goals (his lowest total since 2006-2007) and 27 assists.
Obviously, the door is wide open for Byfuglien to return to the club. He has two years remaining on his current contract and is due to collect an $8 million salary this season, followed by a $6 million salary in the final year of his deal.
But if he decides he's done and chooses not to return to the team, it would be another brutal blow for a Jets defense that has already seen some major subtractions this offseason. The team traded Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in June, then lost Tyler Myers to Vancouver and Ben Chiarot to Montreal when July's free agency period opened.
Given that offseason shakeup, the Jets' defense will likely be significantly worse than it was last season, even if Byfuglien is in the picture. Without Byfuglien, Winnipeg's back end could be in real trouble, enough to slide them from a legitimate contender to a team on the playoff bubble.
At his peak, the big-bodied defenseman (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) is one of the most powerful and intimidating forces in the NHL. But between his size, physical style of play and huge workload (he's averaged over 24 minutes of ice time in each of the past four seasons), it's possible that he's just had enough.
On top of the turnover on the back end, the Jets also lost Kevin Hayes to free agency and still have yet to sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor -- two of their most productive forwards.