It's every Winnipeg columnist's dream: a Jets team minus All-Star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.
And it could be a reality sooner than later.
Byfuglien is entering the final season of his current contract — a five-year deal that pays him at a $5.2 million AAV, and the actual dollar value trending up to this coming season's $6 million — and is already north of 30. The question for the Jets, who have a solid if young defensive corps that seems poised to be built around Tyler Myers for the foreseeable future, is whether they think Byfuglien is going to be worth the significant raise and years-long commitment likely required to retain his services.
This is a rather similar situation to what the Calgary Flames faced vis-a-vis Mark Giordano until they re-signed him to that irrational contract (which is exactly what it is, even if no one in the hockey media seems willing to say that). There are, however, a number of notable exceptions.
Byfuglien, for as good as he is, he's no Giordano. Byfuglien is an All-Star who should have been an Olympian in Sochi — ah, that USA Hockey decision-making — but Giordano would have a pair of Norris trophies on mantle at home were he able to stay in any way healthy for an 82-game season. For another, Giordano is Calgary's captain, and seen as a Strong Veteran Presence on a team with a lot of good young players. For a third, Calgary had to retain him for the two reasons above, plus the fact that, if they'd entertained the idea of trading him this year, their defense would have gone from being one of the best, if not the clear No. 1, in the NHL to being another screaming garbage heap that gives Deryk Engelland nearly 20 minutes a night; such is Giordano's ability and influence. The Jets have no such problem in terms of the quality of blue liners they have in the pipe, ready to go in the near future.
On the other hand, Byfuglien is a little younger, which probably only increases the dollar-value ask at the negotiating table (there's a lot of informed speculation that Giordano took a discount to “just” $6.75 million because the deal will pay him until he's approximately 200 years old). In addition, his current salary of $6 million likely portends a bump into the $7 million range. His AAV, in fact, is only 34th in the league right now, so it must be said that Winnipeg has gotten something of a bargain these last five years, though his current salary is tied for 18th, which seems just about right.
For the 2015-16 season, Winnipeg has a little less than $40.6 million committed to just 13 players, with some big-name players in the mix as pending free agents. In addition to Byfuglien, there's also Andrew Ladd (currently making just $4.4 million against the cap, and he'll be 30 in December) and Grant Clitsome (whom you can safely leave or take) as UFAs.
Then you get into the RFAs: Matt Halischuk and Adam Lowry are guys who probably won't cost you much; Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Michael Hutchinson are the opposite. That doesn't include other guys who might crack the NHL roster by that point, and whose future paydays may therefore have to be considered when extending Byfuglien.
As with signing any player over the age of 30 to a long-term extension, but particularly defensemen, there are many factors to consider when nailing down details. A $7 million price point seems to be in the offing here, at the very least, and that's not so bad given what Byfuglien can currently do on the ice. But as Calgary so wantonly ignored with the Giordano deal, defenders can see their skills diminish pretty quickly in this league around their mid-30s, so any term longer than, say, three or four years becomes a major risk. Especially when considering how his payday impacts future generations of Jets defenders.
Funny as it is to say, Byfuglien, a clear No. 1 defenseman in this league — except when the Jets inexplicably use him as a forward, but that's another discussion entirely — may simply be seen by Winnipeg brass as something of a stopgap or bridge to the Josh Morrisseys and Jan Kostaleks of the world. Indeed, now might be the time for a younger player like Myers or Trouba to start getting more serious ice time. Not that Byfuglien necessarily earned such treatment, but that might be the way the wind's blowing, and he might find himself the odd man out. It is obviously hard to replace D-men of his quality, but they might have to try given their financial considerations.
Another thing to consider here is that the Jets, for all their success in generating interest in the Winnipeg market, remain a budget team because of how small their building is. They do not normally approach the salary cap (last year they finished the year at a little less than $63.7 million in obligations, well below the ceiling), and with the Canadian dollar doing what it is right now, there's no reason to expect that they'd suddenly start breaking the bank to retain Byfuglien or perhaps even Ladd, their captain.
There's also the question of the return Byfuglien would command if he were put on the open trade market (i.e. not just allowed to walk into free agency at the end of Winnipeg Jets Cup run, which is an absurd and abstract concept that no reasonable person can actually picture). The idea of trading him now, in September, is of course a non-starter; if teams are struggling to put together the puzzle pieces in a way that allows them to sign Cody Franson for more than one year and short dollar value, adding Byfuglien's huge-money contract — which carries a higher payout than AAV — just isn't likely to happen. That is, unless the Jets are willing to take back (expiring?) problem contracts of their own, which is a possibility, but that would only mean the other team would have to further sweeten the pot.
Let's put it this way: Look at the return Phil Kessel commanded from Pittsburgh. A clear high-end goal-scoring winger had to be shipped, with $1.2 million in retained salary, a half-decent D-prospect (though time is running out for ol' Tim Erixon), and Tyler Biggs. That's in exchange for just Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington, Nick Spaling and a potential exchange of conditional picks. The Maple Leafs were clearly looking to offload the years-long obligation, though, rather than an expiring deal, so you take what you can get to some extent. One can't imagine anyone would be too eager to help out the Jets if they're that concerned about losing him.
So instead you probably have to let Byfuglien play at least some of the season, thus reducing his cap hit, and making everything a little more palatable for a trade. Maybe by that point you get the old Theo Epstein adage about the market — people paying gallon prices for a quart of milk — and maybe you don't. The deadline has been strange the last few years, and with the cap not especially likely to go up, one imagines that's a trend which will continue in February.
It's easy to say the Jets should trade Byfuglien (or Ladd for that matter), because they probably should. Never again will they have more value than they do right this second. But the market and the NHL's current economic situation paint a very grim picture of Winnipeg's options.
It's tough to envy Kevin Cheveldayoff is responsibility to make a decision here.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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