From his difficult-to-pronounce surname, to his early-career flips from defense to forward and back, to his ability to physically dominate a game, to his enigmatic behavior, Dustin Byfuglien has always been one of the most mysterious and, perhaps misunderstood, players of his era.
And if you’re trying to figure out what makes this man tick, well, the most recent turn of events between him and the Winnipeg Jets is going to leave you even more confounded. Who turns his back on $14 million and a chance to play in the best league in the world? Dustin Byfuglien does. That’s who. When it was announced Friday that the Jets and one of the team’s all-time greatest players had mutually agreed to resolve a grievance Byfuglien had against the team by terminating his contract, it simply added another layer to the intrigue.
What makes it even more confusing is nobody really knows what Byfuglien’s next move will be. His wife, Emily, apparently doesn’t even know. His agent, Ben Hankinson, who will lose about $420,000 (three percent of the $14 million owing on the contract) doesn’t know. Will Byfuglien retire and ride off into the northern Minnesota sunset to hunt and fish for the rest of his life? Will he ever have a desire to come back to the NHL and sign with another team as an unrestricted free agent? Nobody knows, but as one source close to Byfuglien said, one thing is for sure. “If you tell him he’s got to play,” he said, “he won’t play.”
Actually, one other thing is certain. If Byfuglien is healthy and wants to play, there will be no shortage of teams interested in adding him. Even at the age of 35, coming off ankle surgery and without having played in a year. There were times when Byfuglien showed up to training camp fat and out of shape and was back to being a dominant defenseman in pretty short order. A homecoming to the Wild makes sense and would give that organization a blueline corps that would be the envy of the league. A different homecoming, back to Chicago, would certainly be something to see. And in the event Byfuglien is healthy and motivated, if the Toronto Maple Leafs did not do everything they could to try to sign him, their entire hockey operations department should be fired on the spot.
As long as those teams are OK with signing a guy who will make you shake your head with confusion as often as it does with awe of his talent, things could work out. Byfuglien has been branded as selfish and there are undoubtedly fans of the Jets whose image of him will be tarnished because of what became a rather bitter divorce. That’s understandable. Break-ups can be hard and hurtful and ugly, particularly when the desire to end things is coming from only one party.
But if Byfuglien were really selfish, he could have taken the Jets’ money and rode out last season and this coming season. When he decided he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to play hockey again, he let the Jets know the night before training camp opened. There seemed to be a ray of hope late in October, when his agent said he wanted to return, but needed ankle surgery that he elected to have done on his own. He could very well have returned to the Jets, had their choice of doctor do the surgery and rehab on their dime. And if it didn’t heal to his satisfaction, he probably could have extended that into next season while cashing big checks at the bank. But he chose instead to limp away. There are players who are stealing their teams’ money and they know it. Byfuglien refused to do that. In reality, the Jets had Byfuglien in their lineup for three more years than they should have after he signed a five-year extension to stay in Winnipeg in 2016 rather than become one of the hottest commodities on the free-agent market.
And even if he returns to the NHL, this move is going to cost him. Sure, he becomes a UFA, but what kind of a market would he be entering? Would there be a team willing to pay him what the Jets were paying him after seeing him take a year off and having surgery? And even if there were, the decreased revenues for this season are likely to cause one of a significantly decreased salary cap, a massive hit on escrow or perhaps even a league-wide salary rollback. The off-season of 2020 might turn out to be the worst time in history to be looking for a contract and Byfuglien had one guaranteed.
Dustin Byfuglien is the kind of player who infuriates all those beer leaguers out there who resent NHL players for how much money they make and contend they would play in for a fraction of that. They can’t understand why a guy would do that. But Byfuglien had made close to $60 million in career earnings before he decided to pull the chute this season. If the prospect of another $14 million couldn’t bring him back, you had to know this was about a lot more than money. But after so many examples of ‘Buff being Buff’ over the years, perhaps we should not be the least bit surprised.
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