Maple Leafs Shouldn’t Hesitate to Pursue Byfuglien

It was last year when the Toronto Maple Leafs’ main focus was bolstering their blue line. A name that they should have pursued was Kevin Shattenkirk, after the New York Rangers bought him out after two disappointing seasons. He would eventually sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million and played relatively well this season.

One year later, there is another name that’s in a similar situation. One that would ultimately complete the Maple Leafs needs on defense. 

On April 17, the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien mutually agreed to part ways and terminate his contract. The saga dated back to when the season started after the team suspended Byfuglien, when he was originally granted a leave of absence. He then underwent surgery for a high-ankle sprain, which led to him contemplating ending his career. Eventually, a grievance was filed against the Jets, which ultimately came to an end as well. The Jets were also facing a cap crunch with pending key restricted free agents to Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.

It remains to be seen what Byfuglien’s future holds. There’s no definitive answer on whether or not he will play next year or for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the terminated contract makes him a free agent, making him eligible to sign with any of the other 30 teams. The Maple Leafs shouldn’t hesitate at all to give the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defender a contract IF he is 100-percent healthy and ready to play.

Maple Leafs Have the Cap Space

According to Cap Friendly, with Byfuglien’s terminated contract, that frees up $7.6 million for the Jets to pursue other names. The Maple Leafs are in a similar situation. 

Defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are most likely to walk and hit the free-agent market after disappointing seasons. In total that frees up $7.25 million, which amounts close to the contract that Byfuglien initially signed back in 2016-17. The Maple Leafs were already strapped to the cap to begin with, but the inevitable departure of two substandard pieces will help them out tremendously. They now have more than enough cap space to pursue Byfuglien.

Should the Toronto Maple Leafs pursue former Winnipeg Jets defensemen Dustin Byfuglien? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It would be unwise for anyone to give a contract that Byfuglien originally had after missing a full season and rehabbing an ankle injury. If anything, we can use the same contract that Shattenkirk signed with the Lightning as a reference for Byfuglien’s contract, should he choose to sign. A cheap, short-term deal is the best scenario to take, as it gives Byfuglien the opportunity to try and prove that he’s still capable of playing. 

If Byfuglien isn’t up to his standard, then the contract won’t hinder the Maple Leafs as it’s a low dollar value and it won’t affect them long-term. It also helps that they can also move an asset in Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson to free up more space to sign or acquire another key piece.

Byfuglien Addresses Positional Need

If the Maple Leafs are successful in landing ‘Big Buff’, he would provide something that Barrie and Ceci couldn’t, which is consistency on the right side. While Barrie seemed to have performed better offensively under Sheldon Keefe than Mike Babcock, it still wasn’t enough to keep him and Ceci struggled from the very beginning. It was predictable that when the season ended, both would be on the way out. Byfuglien is able to do both of their jobs and then some. 

Byfuglien has managed to become a four-time All-Star while managing to put up strong offensive numbers in the process, recording 50 points five times in his career. He has a booming shot, as he’s managed to register 15 goals seven times along with two 20-goal seasons. Come playoff time, Byfuglien always brings his ‘A’ game, with 21 goals and 29 assists for 50 points in 66 playoff games.

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Possession wise, Byfuglien has faired really well when he is on the ice, which would be a bonus for a possession team like the Maple Leafs. In 2018-19, Byfuglien had a major impact for the Jets at five-on-five. The team had a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 53.10 and a Goals For percentage (GF%) of 52.73 when he was on the ice, being a driving force with the puck. This reflects on his career as well. 

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While he’s effective offensively, his presence will be felt with his intimidating style of play. Byfuglien is a force to be reckoned with, as he’s one to never shy away from the physical side. While the Maple Leafs added Kyle Clifford upfront, he would be able to add more of that physicality to the blue line. The Maple Leafs seemed to have been pushed around a lot last season. Having a hulking presence like Byfuglien on the back end to shut things down will make the Maple Leafs less of a target.

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien
Former Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Jeff Roberson)

Overall, it actually gives the Maple Leafs that top pairing right-handed defenseman they’ve been looking for. With Byfuglien and Jake Muzzin on the right side of the team’s defense, it will solidify their top-four. He excels in every aspect of the game that teams love and it drastically improves the Maple Leafs defense. His mix of offense, defense and brute strength will make the team more complete and much better. 

What Does the Future Hold?

It’s tough to determine whether Byfuglien will retire or continue playing. Ultimately, it’s his decision and we should respect whatever he decides. A person’s health is always important. 

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien St. Louis Blues' Alexander Steen
Former Winnipeg Jets Dustin Byfuglien checks St. Louis Blues’ Alexander Steen (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

Overall, it’s always hard to recover from an injury, miss a full season and come back to being 100 percent. If Byfuglien does sign with Toronto, we don’t know for sure if he’ll be the same player we’ve witnessed over the last six seasons. On the other side, if he does return to his normal high scoring, hard-hitting self, then it would help the Maple Leafs if they tried and extended him for more than just one season.  

Whatever the future holds for Byfuglien remains up in the air. Assuming that he still wants to play, the Maple Leafs shouldn’t hesitate on giving him a contract considering the impact he could have on the team.