Paralyzed by Byfuglien’s absence, Jets persevered through tumultuous season
The Winnipeg Jets started this season in Scramble mode.
Dustin Byfuglien not reporting to training camp with only two years left with a multi-million dollar contract was the start of Winnipeg’s dramatic season.
The defenseman’s massive contract on the books until his mutual termination in April hurt Winnipeg’s financial ability to consolidate the blue line in his absence.
Losing center Bryan Little – another original Jets 2.0 player – to injury for all but seven games was another big gap in the roster.
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Top center Mark Scheifele injured his leg three shifts in the Jets’ opener of the postseason was a fatal injury to their Stanley Cup aspirations.
This was in addition to a season interrupted for four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It rebooted with unprecedented tournaments in downtown Toronto and Edmonton.
Scheifele, winger Patrik Laine (wrist) and forward Mason Appleton (shoulder) were all injured in Game 1 of a best-of-five qualifying series against the Calgary Flames in Edmonton.
Winnipeg bowed out in four games.
A 37-28-6 record, a third straight postseason trip and the Vezina Trophy nomination for goalkeeper Connor Hellebuyck were the triumphs of an unlucky team in 2019-20.
“There were so many unexpected events that could have been catastrophic in so many ways, but the players didn’t let that happen,” Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said on Thursday at a conference call with the media.
“I will consider this a year of great resilience from this group.”
Winnipeg had lost quality defenseman Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free will in 2019 and planned to rely heavily on Byfuglien.
A dominant presence who can, as general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff put it, “pull two players out of a scrum, one in each hand,” has finally given up the last two years of his contract after months of tension with the team.
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Little’s punctured end-of-season eardrum from a teammate’s slap came as the Jets were still trying to clean up their defensive home.
Winnipeg averaged just under three goals against per game in the first three months of the season before narrowing to 2.65 after Jan. 1.
“We were dusted off the field by a few curved balls that we didn’t anticipate, but I thought we got out of the mat and found a way to be competitive,” said Cheveldayoff.
Earn a living
Hellebuyck started earning his nomination at Vézina in late November with a save percentage of .955 in a 4-0 run.
“What Connor did was he gave our team a chance to get thrown in the lake with a rock and then put their heads back out of the water and give you time to take the stone and start swimming, ”said Maurice.
Scheifele initially feared a torn Achilles tendon, but it is not. The center expects to be ready for next season whenever he starts.
Maurice believes that the Jets’ game is five on five in front of theirs and that the opposition net needs to be improved.
The blue line remains a project for Cheveldayoff as 2020-2021 approaches.
To do list
Winnipeg’s 11 unrestricted free players include defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu and Dylan DeMelo.
The latter was acquired at the trade deadline. The substitute goalkeeper Laurent Brossoit is also a UFA.
“To sit here and say ‘our goal is to get bigger, stronger, more resilient,” our goal is to get parts that fit and will complement the parts that we have in place, ”Cheveldayoff said.
“I love our group and I think there are opportunities to add around it.”
Winnipeg needs a replacement for assistant coach Todd Woodcroft, who accepted a job with the University of Vermont men’s hockey team in April.
The Jets drew the 10th overall pick in Monday’s draft lottery.
“Potentially, we were sort of number 12,” Cheveldayoff said. “Getting into the top 10, there are some really good talented players who I think are going to be there for us.”