With the NHL’s season suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously there’s no on-ice news to report for any teams. However, a fair bit of “action” is going on behind the scenes within each organization and with the players. In my News & Rumors reports, I will try to report on some of that news so we can stay up-to-date.
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In this News & Rumors post, I’ll try to help Winnipeg Jets fans – who are among the most loyal in the NHL – stay in the know about their team.
Item One: Dale Hawerchuk Completes His Final Round of Chemotherapy
Dale Hawerchuk’s name is synonymous with the Winnipeg Jets and there was good news this week. NHL.com announced that Hawerchuk had completed his final round of chemotherapy and he was able to leave the hospital in Barrie, Ontario.
The 57-year-old Hall of Famer had taken a medical leave of absence from coaching the Barrie Colts (he’s coached the team almost 10 seasons) on Sept. 3. Later Hawerchuk, who turned 57 on April 4, announced that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in June 2019. At the time of his hospitalization, he called his battle with the disease, “the fight of my life.” It seems he’s won a battle.
In January, Hawerchuk underwent a gastrectomy. The good news is that Dale’s son Eric tweeted, “Today my dad finished his final round of chemo Protocol in Barrie. Got to ring the ‘Bell of Hope’ on his way out. ‘We hope’ this is the end of a long journey but he’s ready for anything. Thanks to everyone who has reached out. Means the world to us. Thinking of you all #DaleStrong”
It’s hard for long-time fans to think of Hawerchuk as anything but a tower of strength on the ice whose play helped the Jets win many games. He played the first nine of his 17 NHL seasons with the Jets. He was great from his first game and scored 45 goals and 58 assists for 103 points as a rookie in 1981-82.
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Chosen No. 1 by the Jets in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, Hawerchuk scored 1,409 points (518 goals, 891 assists) in 1,188 games for the Jets, Buffalo Sabres, St. Louis Blues, and Philadelphia Flyers from 1981-1997. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.
After Hawerchuk signed a five-year, $800,000 contract with the Jets, a police-escorted armored car drove to the historic middle of Winnipeg – the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street – and dropped off the newly-signed 18-year-old celebrity. People couldn’t believe anyone would ever make such money playing NHL hockey.
We wish Hawerchuck and his family success in his battle.
Item Two: What’s the Story with Dustin Byfuglien and the Jets?
Late last week, the NHL Public Relations Department tweeted that the Jets and Dustin Byfuglien had mutually agreed to terminate his contract “effective immediately.” Byfuglien was in the fourth year of a five-year contract drawing an annual average salary of $7.6 million. As noted, he immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent. It also immediately provides the Jets with $7.6 million in salary-cap relief.
The Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen wrote a nice article about the saga and reported that Byfuglien didn’t receive any payment as part of the grievance resolution with the Jets. That means he walked away from $14 million he was still owed, (“Byfuglien, Jets are done,” Paul Friesen, Winnipeg Sun, 17/04/20).
Jet’s fans probably know the twists and turns of the story, but it seems Byfuglien’s heart was no longer “in the game.” He couldn’t bring himself to rehab after his ankle surgery in October or play during the 2019-20 season. Apparently, the big defenseman was going to resume skating in January following surgery but had a change of heart, and his agent called to tell the team his client was quitting rehab and simply didn’t want to play hockey.
It’s tough to speculate what happened, but few people would walk away from that kind of money. There’s a story there somewhere. Right now, Byfuglien can sign anywhere as an unrestricted free agent, but does he want to play anywhere? The 35-years-old has played in 869 NHL games.
Item Three: Connor Hellebuyck Would Be Honored to Win the Vezina, But It’s Not Enough
There’s no mistake about it, Connor Hellebuyck would be thrilled if the 31 NHL general managers voted him to win the Vezina Trophy as the goalie judged to be the “best at this position.” However, if he could target an award, that’s not the one he’d be after.
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Hellebuyck told the Winnipeg Sun last week: “It would be a great milestone and it would definitely be one of my goals achieved but at the end of the day, what I truthfully want is the Stanley Cup and a chance to win it. So anything that gets me closer to that, I would do for sure,” (From “Hellebuyck ‘honoured’ by Vezina chatter; but wants Stanley Cup, Scott Billeck, Winnipeg Sun, 16/04/20).
At times, the Jets’ 2019-20 season was tough, and Hellebuyck stood as a huge reason the team remained in contention. His record over 58 games was 31-21-5, with a goals-against average of 2.57 and a .922 save percentage. During the season, one commentator noted that the Jets had a great goalie but little else.
Perhaps that’s overstating the situation and ignoring the contributions of Mark Scheifele’s and Kyle Connor’s 73 points, Blake Wheeler’s 65 points, Patrik Laine’s 63 points, Nikolaj Ehlers 58 points, and the young, first-year-with-the-Jet’s defenseman Neal Pionk’s breakout season. But the point is well-taken. Even with all these contributions, Hellebuyck arguably had the best season of any Jets player.
That said, given the players’ contributions listed above, it’s clear the 26-year-old Hellebuyck is far from the only skilled Jets player. The team struggled after losing defensemen Tyler Myers and Byfuglien; however, the team survived and, in the long run, it will prosper. They will be set up for a few seasons yet; and, given the quality of their players, their Stanley Cup window will be open a while longer.
What’s Next for the Jets?
Although the Jets were in a playoff position, they weren’t a favourite to win the Stanley Cup. The big question is whether the NHL’s 2019-20 regular season – or even the playoffs – will happen. The suspension since March 12 has put the season in jeopardy.
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Hockey fans everywhere are waiting to see what happens. However, there’s a more important situation – people’s health. We at THW encourage fans to stay inside and isolate themselves with their families. Be well.