Dustin Byfuglien (Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety has suspended Winnipeg Jets blueliner Dustin Byfuglien for four games. The timing couldn’t be worse, either, as the Jets are just two points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for the final wild-card berth with only five games remaining.
News came down this afternoon that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has suspended Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien for four games for his crosscheck to the head and neck area of New York Rangers center J.T. Miller. And while Miller thankfully escaped without serious injury, it appears Byfuglien might have put more of a hurt on his own team.
Make no mistake, Byfuglien earned every game of his suspension. But what a time for him to be heading to the sidelines because of a reckless play. With only five games remaining in their regular season, the Jets are attempting to lock down the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference while the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings seem determined to sneak ahead of Winnipeg for a chance to protect their crown.
Without Byfuglien, Winnipeg’s chances of hanging onto the final wild-card berth are hurt, but just how much?
On the face, the Jets last stretch without Byfuglien wasn’t bad. During a March 4 contest against the Ottawa Senators, Byfuglien went down with an undisclosed upper body injury. It was revealed that Byfuglien would miss at least two-to-four weeks, and he did exactly that, missing nine games over the next 21 days. It seemed like doom and gloom when Byfuglien went down, but that wasn’t the case.
Over that nine-game stretch, Winnipeg went 6-3-0, outscored opponents 27-20 and went on the five-game winning streak that has helped them maintain their standing in the wild-card race. But the final results don’t speak much to how the Jets were actually playing.
Winnipeg’s underlying numbers tell a different story about their play with and without Byfuglien. With the big-bodied blueliner in the lineup, which he has been for 68 games this season, the Jets have posted a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 52.5 percent. At 5-on-5, they muster 55.4 attempts on goal per game, while allowing only 50.1 per 60 minutes. In the nine-game stretch without Byfuglien, things were much different.
From March 7 to March 24, Winnipeg had a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 49.8, allowed 50.7 attempts against per 60 minutes while firing just 50.3 attempts of their own. While nine games is a relatively small sample size, it speaks to how effective Byfuglien has been and can be on the Winnipeg blueline. Without him they don’t control play as greatly as they have with him.
What’s most troubling for the Jets, however, is that Byfuglien has game-breaking talent from the backend. When he’s on his game, he can take over and be the most dominant player on the ice. Over a five-game stretch, anything can happen, no matter what advanced statistics might suggest. And in a five-game, win-and-you’re-in type scenario, you want a player of Byfuglien’s ilk in the lineup if for nothing but his booming shot and incredible ability to use his size to drive to the net.
Instead, in Byfuglien’s place, the Jets will trot out Jay Harrison. In Harrison, coach Paul Maurice ices a defensive blueliner who isn’t going to show any flash but do his best to get pucks up and out of the Winnipeg zone. The difficulty in replacing Byfuglien is that he provided that aspect while being able to carry and control the puck and physically impose his will. Byfuglien’s zone starts aren’t weighted too heavily to any of the three zones, yet he provides a ton of offensive upside.
The trouble then for the Jets is to balance their pairings. Do they feel comfortable stripping the offensive option from their second or third pairing, where Byfuglien played the past three games with Adam Pardy, and inserting Harrison and leaving it at that? Or does Maurice look to shake up the combinations of Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba and Toby Enstrom-Tyler Myers in favor of what he feels are his best combinations?
Whatever he chooses to do, he has to be extremely sure about. Bringing out the line blender, especially so late in a season with so much on the line, can lead to little mistakes that end up in the back of Winnipeg’s net.
As it stands, the Jets can ill afford a costly or untimely mistake. They are just two points up on the Los Angeles Kings, who have a game in hand. Los Angeles will also play the Edmonton Oilers twice and only two of their final six games are against playoff teams. Winnipeg’s schedule isn’t as easy, as they’ll face four playoff teams in their last five games.
The question, though, is whether or not the Jets will be post-season bound without Byfuglien. In a five-game stretch, as mentioned, just about anything can happen. Winnipeg will have to play all but four of those five without the services of arguably their best defenseman. But with the injuries, ailments and distractions the team has fought through this season, it would be wrong to count the Jets out just yet.