In the summer of 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks traded Dustin Byfuglien to the struggling Atlanta Thrashers. It was part of a larger “blockbuster” trade that saw an exchange of several players, prospects, and draft picks between the divergent clubs.
At the time, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted that the deal was “simply a salary cap move.” The Hawks had just won the Stanley Cup, and needed to jettison talent to accommodate its’ already stacked roster.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as Byfuglien ended up changing the trajectory of the Winnipeg Jets, as the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg a year later. Prior to his abrupt retirement in 2019 (more on that later), Big Buff was a 4-time All-Star and a Stanley Cup Champion. He was an enigma wrapped in an offensive lineman, and I posit both the best and the worst thing to happen to Winnipeg Jets 2.0.
Let’s examine. Firstly, it is important to put into context just how special a player Dustin Byfuglien was. It was tantamount to winning the lottery having acquired him (via the Thrashers) for next to nothing. During his tenure with the Blackhawks, Byfuglien played right wing.
He was instrumental to Chicago’s Stanley Cup win in 2010 as a forward, but the Thrashers decided to return Buff to his ‘natural’ position at defense. It was a good move. In his first season with Atlanta, and his first as a full-time defenseman in the NHL, Byfuglien posted the following RAPM numbers according to Evolving Hockey:
Just incredible. He led the league in “Goals Above Replacement” (GAR) that year for defensemen, yet finished 7th in Norris voting. While he was never able to repeat his statistical success from 2010-11, he continued to dominate, and ‘tilt the ice’ for years to come.
To illustrate, from 2015-2018 Dustin Byfuglien had 142 “High-Danger Chances” (HDC) based on Natural Stat Trick metrics. The next comparable defenseman during that span (Brent Burns) had 76. Buff recorded nearly double the HDCs for a defenseman over a 3-year period while playing fewer minutes and shooting less (Burns took 1006 to Buff’s 681). He was also 2nd in “Expected Goals” and 3rd in rushing attempts.
How much did Dustin Byfuglien mean to the Winnipeg Jets?
The metric that encapsulates the true Dustin Byfuglien experience (2015-18) is as follows: Byfuglien had the largest delta between hits delivered vs. hits taken. He dolled out 552 (usually bruising) hits while only absorbing 186. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the disparity. At 6’5” and 260 plus pounds, Byfuglien combined the rarest size/skill combination I dare say the NHL has ever seen.
But there was a lot more to Byfuglien’s game than advanced stats. Mathematics aside, hockey is still a game of momentum. A crushing hit or a thrilling end-to-end rush can change the tide of a game, and Byfuglien doled these out like James Reimer doles out goals to opponents.
Two or three times a game, Byfuglien would single-handedly change the tone and tenure of play. Adversaries knew the risks of tangling with Dustin Byfuglien, and few chose to do so. That is a serious advantage, especially come playoff time.
I will admit that I did not fully embrace and value the Dustin Byfuglien experience in real-time. He was prone to costly turnovers, and he never (publicly anyway) seemed to take the game too seriously. It is true that you never fully appreciate what you have until it is gone.
The circumstances around Byfuglien’s retirement are suspect and shrouded in uncertainty. The story goes that prior to the 2019-2020 season, Byfuglien approached GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and expressed an unwillingness to play another NHL season.
When he failed to show up for Training Camp – the Jets suspended him – leading to his declaration that he wanted to have ankle surgery prior to any further discussions. One NHLPA grievance and a year later, Byfuglien ended up walking away from the remaining $14M left on his contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
Stars can’t shine without darkness, and that is exactly what has followed the Jets since his departure. The organization has been chasing its 2018 playoff run for half a decade, but it has proven futile in attempting to replace (in the aggregate), an irreplaceable asset.
Admittedly, the 2018 iteration of the Winnipeg Jets was stacked. In addition to Byfuglien on the back end, the Jets boasted the likes of Morrissey, Trouba and Enstrom. That is an excellent defensive core. With Wheeler in his prime, and enough forward depth to relegate Adam Lowry to a 4th line center, the Jets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
The issue is, since that fateful run, the Jets have steadfastly believed in the core of that team without Dustin Byfuglien. It has tinkered around the edges while remaining relatively conservative in an attempt to keep this core intact.
I am guilty of supporting this strategy, as again, I didn’t appreciate the true impact Dustin Byfuglien had on this team. There is a Moneyball component at play here, wherein replacing a star player in the aggregate can work, but only if you are smarter than all of your competitors. A very lofty benchmark that the Jets have been unable to attain.
What impact did Dustin Byfuglien’s departure have on the Winnipeg Jets?
The other component of this saga is psychological. Winnipeg Jets fans and Winnipeggers, in general, suffer from an inferiority complex. You can’t live in the smallest Canadian market and not feel underappreciated to a certain extent.
Dustin Byfuglien (and to a lesser extent Patrik Laine), was a larger-than-life presence and carried himself outwardly with a physicality and gravitas that gave Winnipeg an identity. He was our bully pulpit and a defense against the anonymity of being a fan of an overlooked franchise. When he left, it created a roster void, but it also created an identity void in Winnipeg.
All of this is NOT to say that it has been solely doom-and-gloom since Byfuglien’s departure. The Jets do have talent and have provided plenty of entertaining moments, and have performed well on many occasions.
It’s just that losing Byfuglien without a contingency plan has greatly impacted this team. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and Byfuglien’s broad shoulders supported that crown in a myriad of ways during his time in Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg Jets caught lightning in a bottle, and Jets fans were lucky enough to ride that storm. Lightning doesn’t often strike in the same place twice, and so the Jets have been out in the rain chasing that electricity ever since.