We continue our trek through the Central Division with an enigmatic franchise that could see another playoff season, or a fall from grace, depending upon what their most stable player does, the Winnipeg Jets.
Last season: 47-30-5, 99 points, 2nd place, lost in Central Division semifinals
Key losses: D Jacob Trouba, RW Brandon Tanev, D Tyler Myers, D Dustin Byfuglien(?)
Key additions: D Neal Pionk, D Ville Heinola, C Mark Letestu
The Jets have one of the biggest issues in the NHL ahead of them. Yes, they recently re-signed Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, locking up crucial pieces of their forward corps. But after an offseason that saw the Jets trade Jacob Trouba to the Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and also lose Tyler Myers and defensive forward Brandon Tanev, the Jets could be losing what may be the face of their franchise in Dustin Byfuglien, who’s currently suspended without pay as he considers his future in the sport.
Byfuglien, 34, has two years remaining on his contract worth $7.6 million per season. He won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010, and after a series of injuries, could be walking away from the sport to spend more time with his family. That would devastate Winnipeg’s defensive corps, who would turn to Josh Morrissey as their No. 1 defenseman, and after Laine questioned his future with the team this offseason, could perhaps trade their young goal scorer for a more veteran No. 1 defenseman.
The Jets season may hang in the balance, between being favored to make the playoffs and potentially missing it. Their forward group is still excellent - between Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Connor, Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Mathieu Perreault, there’s no lack of scoring - but a weakened defensive group ahead of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck could dash Winnipeg’s hopes.
It’s hard not to stress how important Byfuglien now is to the Jets. With him, they’re an emerging powerhouse who can play multiple styles of hockey and have a reliable workhorse who can eat minutes better than perhaps anyone when healthy. But without him, they’re still an effective scoring machine, but their blue line could allow just as many or more goals against.
Byfuglien’s decision could be one of the most important in the NHL this season.