Trading Dustin Byfuglien: Valuing The Asset

If you walk into a bar in Winnipeg and want to start a quick and possibly heated conversation, casually wonder out loud whether the Winnipeg Jets should trade Dustin Byfuglien. After that, sit back with your drink and watch the madness unfold. In Winnipeg there’s no surer way to start people talking than to bring up the Jets, and these days there’s no surer way to get them talking loudly and contentiously than by bringing up Dustin Byfuglien. Surprisingly, given his successful run with the team, the man Jets fans have affectionately dubbed “Big Buff” is perceived by many to be prime trade bait.

Why trade Buff?

With the Winnipeg Jets’ perennial trade target and lightning rod of controversy Evander Kane gone, the trade talk has been somewhat muted this summer. When it starts, one name that unfailingly comes up is Dustin Byfuglien. With his expiring contract and the fact that he’s just turned 30, many Jets fans feel the team should explore trading Dustin Byfuglien.

It’s a touchy subject, to be sure. Most fans don’t want to see him leave, but Michael Frolik’s exit via free agency has made many wary of losing Byfuglien for nothing. Others point to the team’s winning record with Byfuglien out of the lineup and argue the team should have moved him already.

Then there are others (including myself) who believe we should be extending his contract right away. They see Dustin Byfuglien as a unique player, and can’t imagine any return that would be worth losing him. They don’t want to watch the Jets most entertaining player ply his trade elsewhere and they especially don’t want him to bring this kind of play against their hometown squad:

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The video is short, but demonstrates Byfuglien’s physical dominance, and it’s the first thing I think of whenever the topic of trading Dustin Byfuglien is introduced. Can the Jets afford to lose that intimidating presence, especially in the big, bad western conference?

Whether or not I believe the Jets should explore trading Dustin Byfuglien, however, there’s no denying the question is out there. If the Jets do trade Byfuglien, they must get a good return, as a poor return on such an impact player would be devastating. If Kevin Cheveldayoff is going to trade Buff, he must understand what he’s giving up to understand what he should get in return.

Valuing the Asset

The fans in Winnipeg tend to undervalue Byfuglien. When the topic of his potential trade arises, the proposed return is often depressingly low, perhaps because fans have a hard time looking past the warts to see what Byfuglien brings to the table. Some think of him only as a player whose riverboat gambler style causes turnovers, or as another defensive contract on a team with too many. What Byfuglien actually is, however, is an asset worth far more than what he’s often given credit for. If you want to know how much he’s worth, the best place to start is with his peers.

These are Byfuglien’s own stats. Out of context they’re impressive enough, but consider this: since he left Chicago, only two NHL defensemen have more points than Buff: Erik Karlsson and Keith Yandle. Take a look at some of the players he’s ahead of (just set the dates at 2010-11 to 2014-15 and filter in defensemen).

The point totals are excellent of course, but a few other numbers bear scrutiny. Byfuglien trails only Oliver Ekman-Larsson with 15 game winning goals, and his 96 power play points lags behind only Yandle, Karlsson, and P.K. Subban. Most remarkable of all are his 7 overtime goals, leading all defensemen. Offensively, there’s no denying Byfuglien offers an elite skill package.

I’ll grant that defense isn’t all about piling up points, but it’s hard to shrug off those numbers. When you pair them with Byfuglien’s nastiness, it becomes obvious why he would demand such a massive haul in a trade.

So what do the Jets have in Byfuglien? The simple answer is this: a true number one defenseman, perhaps the NHL’s rarest and most valuable commodity. With that in mind, if the Jets consider trading Dustin Byfuglien they had better get a mountainous return. Number one defenders don’t change teams often, but when they do it’s for nothing less than a king’s ransom. Jets fans don’t have to look far for an example of how expensive a good defenseman is via trade; just look at the pieces Winnipeg gave up to land Tyler Myers.

The Myers trade brings up an interesting comparable, because although the Jets paid through the nose it increasingly looks like they won the trade. In 2011, the Colorado Avalanche traded a first line right winger coming off a 28 goal season, and their most promising rookie to land their top pair defender, Erik Johnson (here’s a refresher on the swap). Years later it looks as though they won their trade as well. It’s a running theme of the few trades involving top flight defensemen; the team getting the best defenseman wins. With that in mind, you have to consider if it’s worth trading Dustin Byfuglien knowing you’ll likely lose the trade.

Still, some will insist trading Dustin Byfuglien is not only a good idea but perhaps the only idea. Byfuglien’s expiring contract and the fear of losing him for nothing work against him, and with youngsters like Josh Morrissey on the way, it might be time to create an opening. Plus, the return from such a valuable defenseman could set the team on the right path for years to come. If you want to trade Byfuglien for any of those reasons, that’s fine. Just remember what the Jets are giving up, and value him appropriately.

So if we accept Byfuglien’s high value, who makes a good trade partner? They’d need a team hunting a top-flight defenseman, willing to pay the high price the Jets will surely set and able to absorb Byfuglien’s cap hit of $5.2 million. Who are those teams? You’ll just have to wait for part 2 to find out.

Dustin Byfuglien Jets
Big Buff has always battled hard in front of the net at either end. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)