Two seasons ago, the Winnipeg Jets were a dark horse Cup contender, and then, for a brief moment, actual Cup favorites, and playing like it. It didn’t happen for them, but they returned largely the same roster the next. 2018 was a step back, with a first-round playoff exit—though to the eventual champion Blues—but I wrote that no team less needed to hit the panic button because of a down year. The Jets were still a threat, their window firmly open, sporting one of the game’s top forward lines and probably the single deepest blue line. Well, that panic button’s kind of pressed itself.
The big right-handed defenseman had asked for and received a leave of absence last week, and Jets coach Paul Maurice promised “there’s nothing sinister” to it. I hope Byfuglien takes his time to make the right decision for him, but if he is walking away from hockey with two years left on his contract, the Jets are well and truly fucked.
They might be already! Their blue line, so good for these last few years, is now—and there’s no way to properly describe it without falling back on the Britishism—a shambles. They traded Jacob Trouba because they knew they wouldn’t re-sign him. They did not use that money to re-sign Tyler Myers or Ben Chiarot, both of whom left in the opening days of free agency. And now if Byfuglien doesn’t return, that’s four defensemen needing to be replaced in a single offseason. No team can do that, not even one that was working from such strength.
Josh Morrisey is the only useful defender left, and he’s great. Dmitry Kulikov would be the other top-six guy returning from last year, and he sucks. Sami Niku is young and promising enough that he should get major minutes. Tucker Poolman is probably an AHL-level talent, and he’ll get minutes by default. Neal Pionk, acquired for Trouba, is a third-pairing guy, or ought to be. You don’t need to know these names. All you need to know is that the Jets’ strength is now a potentially crippling weakness.
If Byfuglien is done, expect Winnipeg to turn to the trade market—Pierre LeBrun mentions Justin Faulk and Rasmus Ristolainen as potential targets. But they wouldn’t come cheap, and the Jets don’t exactly have an embarrassment of forward depth from which to deal. They’re top-heavy there, which is fine, most teams are, but even the top six is looking much shakier than it ought to.
Patrik Laine, an explosive scorer who had a down year (with “only” 30 goals), is a restricted free agent and still unsigned. And quite unhappy. Laine has decamped to Switzerland to work out while his agent negotiated with the Jets, and this week he made his strongest comments yet about his dissatisfaction with his role.
“When you’re having contract negotiations, one thing always is who are you playing with. With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. Everybody who understands hockey knows that,” Laine explained, as translated by Jalonen.
“There are top lines and then there is our line. But I play with the guys I’m told to play.”
Translated: Laine thinks he should be on the Jets’ top line, centered by Mark Scheifele, rather than alongside Bryan Little on the second line. (And/or: he thinks he should be paid like a first-liner.) From the Jets’ standpoint, I don’t know how they could make that work. Yes, Laine’s a talent, but moving him up would mean moving down Blake Wheeler, and Wheeler, Scheifele, and Kyle Connor have shown remarkable chemistry playing together.
Ah, but there’s yet another complication: Connor is also an unsigned RFA. And at least three other teams are considering offer sheeting him, according to Sportsnet. That’s probably not the end of the world for the Jets; Connor’s still just 22 and is already as well-rounded a winger as you could ask for, and Winnipeg wouldn’t blanch at signing him long-term. But doing that now, their hand forced by an offer sheet, instead of a shorter bridge deal, probably means there’s no long-term deal in the offing for Laine, and certainly nothing at the rate he’s looking for. Laine’s days in Winnipeg might be numbered, and they might literally be measured in days, if it turns out he’s trade bait.
The Jets and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t, in retrospect, hit the panic button because of last season’s outcome. But their cap crunch caught up to them, and this season’s team is still going to look very, very different, and almost certainly in negative ways. It’s a jarring reminder that a contending window never stays open for long, and every missed opportunity while it’s still cracked is one opportunity that’ll never come around again.