At this point, it’s tough to tell.
Winnipeg is in fine shape cap-wise at the moment, but there could be choppy waters ahead. Before next summer rolls around several of the Jets’ top players will need new deals, including restricted free agents Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Adam Lowry, and unrestricted free agents Andrew Ladd and Byfuglien.
That group wouldn’t pose a problem for a team that could spend up to the league’s cap. But Winnipeg operates with an internal budget that’s at least partially a product of being saddled with the NHL’s smallest building (capacity 15,004). And because of that, it's unlikely that they’ll be able to keep their current lineup intact into 2016–17.
So why is that a problem now? The truth is, it isn’t. All of those players fit into the current budget, so no one would blame GM Kevin Cheveldayoff if he punted on this until the trade deadline at the earliest and let the 2015–16 season play out as it may.
But at the same time, it makes sense that he be open to the possibility of a deal now—at least if it benefits his playoff-contending team in both the short and long term.
And if that’s the way he decides to play it, the obvious man out, either now or at the deadline, would be Byfuglien. At 30 he’s the oldest of the bunch, and while he’s stayed relatively healthy his physical style will inevitably take a toll, making a long-term extension both expensive and risky. Plus, the Jets have both Trouba and Tyler Myers to play the right side. While it’s impossible to replace Byfuglien’s unique skill set, his loss would be easier to cover than any of the others who will also be looking for new contracts.
If Winnipeg does decide to move on from Big Buff, there would be a line of suitors willing to take him on, blemishes (too many giveaways, selfish/dangerous play) and all. The chance to add his size, skating and offensive prowess to their blue line would be too tempting. And the sooner the deal is made, the higher the price that can be extracted.
When the Bruins dealt Milan Lucic—another physical player with one year remaining on his contract—to the Kings at the draft in June they acquired a first-rounder, promising young goaltender Martin Jones (who was later flipped to the Sharks for another first-rounder), and defensive prospect Colin Miller. Byfuglien has more value than Lucic, and would likely command a more significant return, one that would include a player who could make an immediate impact, either in Winnipeg’s top six up front or on the left side of the blue line. Picks and/or prospects may also be part of the equation, but only as sweeteners.
Boston, a team in desperate need of blue-line help, was at the center of Byfuglien rumors over the weekend. Hard to see the B's being a good fit, though, unless a significant salary went the other way to keep them out of cap purgatory. A deal centered around versatile forward Loui Eriksson, a first-rounder (the Bruins have two next summer) and a solid prospect such as Alexander Khokhlachev or Joe Morrow would work. The Red Wings could be an option, with some intriguing options among their left-side defensemen (Xavier Ouellet, for instance) and plenty of young talent up front (Tomas Jurco, perhaps). The Ducks, who struggled mightily on the power play last season, have several NHL-ready young defensemen, a love for physical players and a ton of cap space to work with.
When you consider those options, it’s easy to imagine how the ball might get rolling. Of course, the return isn’t the only consideration here. Byfuglien has a modified no-trade clause that could limit Cheveldayoff’s options. But if he’s serious about making a change, it won’t tie his hands.
At some point, something has to give in Winnipeg. It certainly makes the Jets a team to watch as the summer winds down.
• The judge in the concussion lawsuit filed against the NHL has ordered the league to turn over all documents related to player injuries and head trauma. From the tone of Rick Westhead’s piece, Judge Susan Nelson is unimpressed by the league’s early arguments.
• The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame announced its class of 2015. Congrats to Chris Drury, Mathieu Schneider, Angela Ruggiero and Ron DeGregorio.
• Team USA’s World Junior evaluation camp is underway in Lake Placid. It did not get off to roaring start.
• It’s been a month since Los Angeles terminated the contract of Mike Richards after a border-crossing incident, and the NHLPA still hasn’t filed a grievance on his behalf. What’s going on?
• Only two teams in the NHL allocate at least 50% of their cap space to just five players. But going top-heavy is hardly unique.