Early in the 2015-2016 season, Dustin Byfuglien
would occasionally be asked about his contract status with the Winnipeg Jets.
All those questions stopped on Feb. 8, 2016.
That was the day the big defenseman signed a five-year extension with the Jets. The move was popular not only with the fans, but with his teammates as well. Byfuglien was mauled by his teammates in the neutral zone at Scottrade Center in St. Louis when head coach Paul Maurice announced the news.
“I’m excited to be a Jet,” said Byfuglien following that practice. “My family and I found Winnipeg nice and we’re very happy to stay here and sign this. I’d like to say thanks to (Jets owner Mark Chipman), the Jets, and (General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff). They’ve been good with me the whole time. Never really crossed my mind of going anywhere.”
Just how important was getting Byfuglien under contract for Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff? Crucial.
“You see a player like Dustin Byfuglien make a commitment. He sees what’s going on internally. He lives it each and every day,” said Cheveldayoff. “He has an opportunity to go somewhere else, so called ‘greener pastures’ but he decides to stay here because he likes what’s going on.”
The ripple effect of that contract was felt just a few weeks ago, when Mark Scheifele put his name to an eight-year deal, citing Byfuglien’s commitment as one determining factor.
“When you see a guy like Dustin Byfuglien sign for five more years, you definitely get excited about that,” said Scheifele. “He’s a special player, he’s an elite player and one of the best defencemen in the league. … That’s definitely someone you want on your team. That was huge for me.”
Oddly enough, Scheifele’s name came up in a conversation between Cheveldayoff and Byfuglien during negotiations.
“I remember when I sat down with Buff when we were getting close and I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Why do you want to sign?’” said Cheveldayoff. “He talked about the youth, players like Mark, other young guys we have in the organization and understanding that it takes time to build a championship team.”
With the contract out of his mind, Byfuglien went on to add four goals and 21 points between that day and the end of the season, boosting his year-end total to 19 goals and 53 points.
While the team as a whole didn’t accomplish its goal of making the playoffs, Byfuglien and teammate Blake Wheeler’s leadership in the final stretch of the regular season impressed Maurice.
“What I valued in those last games, is Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien set a standard,” said Maurice. “There was a consistency to the game based on the tone set by our veteran guys… I am pleased with that leadership that they kept that room working every day.”
It wasn’t only the coaching staff Byfuglien received praise from. It came from outside the dressing room as well. Before the year was over, he was named an NHL All-Star for the fourth time, the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, and was selected for USA’s World Cup of Hockey team.
That event will be the first time Byfuglien wears the red, white, and blue to represent his country.
“There are so many good players out there. To get picked, it’s an honour,” said Byfuglien following the announcement. “It will be exciting. I’m super excited to do it. I can’t wait to start.”