Dustin Byfuglien was a defensive menace who could change the entire game the second he set foot on the ice. A monster defender standing 6-foot-5, and weighing 260-pounds, he played a critical role for the Winnipeg Jets and ultimately was their locker room leader for almost a decade.
The History of Big Buff
Before the Jets made their triumphant return to the NHL, Byfuglien played one season for the Atlanta Thrashers prior to their relocation. Just before joining Atlanta, “Big Buff” as some call him, also brought a Stanley Cup ring to the locker room having won that the year prior with the Chicago Blackhawks. During that playoff run, Byfuglien had 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 22 games, which included five game-winning goals. He played a major role in their Stanley Cup victory. Adding his presence to not only Atlanta but also Winnipeg would change the entire team’s identity.
During his first season with the Jets, he became a fan favourite by throwing humungous hits and getting his name on the scoresheet. He finished the season off with 53 points (12 goals, 41 assists). Over the next seven seasons, he would register 50-plus points three times. Byfuglien was one of just a handful of players who had a dual-playing ability, meaning he could play both forward and defence. These types of players are extremely valuable to a team as they are hard to come by.
During his eight-year career with the Jets, the Roseau, Minnesota product registered 363 points over 528 career games and was named an All-Star four times. He also garnished 733 penalty minutes (PIM) during his time with the Jets.
The Byfuglien and Jets Relationship
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and Byfuglien had a long and prolonged contract dispute that lasted almost seven months. What started in early Sept 2019, wouldn’t finish until April 2020, when Byfuglien and the Jets agreed to mutually terminate his contract worth $14 million. While it was a rollercoaster of a ride to get through those seven months, it was ultimately about his health and wellness.
“At the end of the day, everybody has a choice. “Dustin’s choice was to be true to himself and not put himself, and maybe the team and everybody, in a difficult situation. He didn’t have it in him to continue to play. That’s the most honest thing he could say.”Kevin Cheveldayoff
Health and wellness are important, especially for a player like Byfuglien whose sole job is to go out there and lay bone-jarring hits on opponents. It was clear that this was not about money, and it was more about his desire to continue to play the game he loved.
No Identity in Winnipeg
As of today, the Jets are still feeling the consequences of Byfuglien’s sudden departure. The ability to control a game is something only a handful of players are able to do, whether that be a guy like Buff or the legendary Bob Probert, these types of players are having their roles diminished. Although, it seems this year that the old school mentality has made a return. The Colorado Avalanche went out and acquired Kurtis MacDermid, who now patrols the blue line for the Avs. The Anaheim Ducks have Nicolas Deslauriers, who is out there to protect guys like Trevor Zegras, and finally, the New York Rangers signed the “heavyweight champion” Ryan Reaves to a contract to help with their issues in the Metropolitan Division.
These are all players who control the game, and when you faced their team, you know not to run their star players or else you will have to answer the bell. The Jets need a player like that again, someone who can police the ice and allow for guys like Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and others to freely skate and do their jobs as offensive weapons. The game is ever-changing, but there will always be a role for a player like that. While the Jets do have a couple of guys who can go out there and get the job done if needed, they don’t have that spark plug that Big Buff once provided the team.
Related: 7 Fun Facts About Dustin Byfuglien
A larger-than-life presence, Byfuglien became an instant fan favourite not even 10 seconds into the first pre-season home game for the Jets in 2011, when he bulldozed Columbus Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert over. The Bell MTS Place was electric as they witnessed what would be the first of hundreds of hits dished out by him. If the Jets are able to go out and grab a guy who embodies a similar play style, they could be in good hands.
A couple of names that come to mind right now are New York Islanders forward Ross Johnston, and New York Rangers defenceman Jarred Tinordi. Both Johnston and Tinordi are policemen of the game and are large figures on the ice standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 230-pounds. They would both fit right into the Jets culture and would likely become favourites among not only fans but their fellow players. Those are just a couple of players who could revive that identity that the Jets once had when Byfuglien patrolled the ice.
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Born and raised in Kamloops B.C. and a die-hard fan of the Kamloops Blazers, hockey has always been a part of his life. Now, Colton is exploring the sports media world and looking to make it a career. He currently covers the Winnipeg Jets, as well as contributes to World Juniors, and draft-related content. He is co-host of the WesternCentric Podcast, which revolves around the WHL.