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Byfuglien status key for Jets ahead of Trade Deadline

Possible moves could depend on future of suspended defenseman

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Dustin Byfuglien has not played a game for the Winnipeg Jets this season, but his status could determine what they do ahead of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline.

"First and foremost, what will the availability be for me from a (NHL salary) cap perspective?" Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said about the approach prior to the Feb. 24 deadline (3 p.m. ET). "And that will be greatly influenced by the Byfuglien situation and what [happens]."

The defenseman, who is in the fourth year of a five-year contract with an average annual value of $7.6 million, remains suspended after being granted a personal leave of absence Sept. 12. He has been rehabilitating a surgically repaired ankle.

Cheveldayoff said Dec. 30 that before anything might happen regarding Byfuglien's possible return, the defenseman "has to decide in his mind he wants to play."

Video: WPG@STL, Gm6: Byfuglien slams rebound by Binnington

Cheveldayoff has not spoken of any deadline the Jets have given Byfuglien, so presumably the only one in play is the trade deadline. It's unknown if Byfuglien could be healthy enough to return this season, but Cheveldayoff has mentioned scenarios where his return might be possible.

Byfuglien had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in 42 games with the Jets last season. The 34-year-old would be a good target for any team needing an offensive-minded and physical defenseman. He had at least 45 points and 100 penalty minutes in each of his previous four seasons from 2014-18.

Conversely, if the Jets were to find out before the deadline that Byfuglien would rather retire, they would have the ability use his cap charge for other players.

Another question mark the Jets are dealing with is the status of forward Bryan Little, who is out indefinitely, and has missed 27 games after being hit in the head with a shot against the New Jersey Devils on Nov. 5. He is skating lightly but is not close to returning.

"And the second thing there is Bryan Little, what's his status and what's his long-term status?" Cheveldayoff said. "He's an important piece, a center and a top forward. We're keeping a close monitor there. If you have more knowledge on those things, it'll help us make decisions when we get to or closer to the deadline."

Little tops a long list of Jets injuries that have amounted to 157 man-games lost this season, which does not include the 43 Byfuglien has missed.

Forward Andrew Copp missed eight games with an upper-body injury before returning for a 3-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday. Defensemen Dmitry Kulikov (17 games missed, upper body) is out for at least another week and Nathan Beaulieu (three games missed, upper body) is out at least four weeks.

"That's a big number," Jets coach Paul Maurice said of the injuries. "We felt coming into the year this was going to be a fight through the whole year and I think it's going to be. The bigger question was how would we fight, what kind of room would you build?

Video: WPG@SJS: Byfuglien roofs early breakaway after steal

Despite all of that, Winnipeg (23-16-4) holds the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference and is fourth in the Central Division, four points behind the second-place Colorado Avalanche.

In addition to missing Byfuglien, the Jets have had to cope with a revamped defense after the departures of Jacob Trouba via trade (New York Rangers) and Tyler Myers (Vancouver Canucks) and Ben Chiarot (Canadiens) via free agency in the offseason.

"This group came together with all the outside noise, good, bad or indifferent and just put a cocoon around themselves and said, 'We're going to play and the people in here are the ones that matter,'" Cheveldayoff said. "That's served us well. There's a belief that we're never really out of a game, that we'll just stay in the fight and see where it turns out in the end."

The Jets, though, have floundered through the midseason mark. They are 4-6-2 and have allowed 48 goals (4.0 per game) in their past 12 games.

During this stretch, their penalty kill has failed far too often, allowing 13 power-play goals in the past 32 opportunities (59.4 percent). Winnipeg's penalty killing has dropped to last in the NHL at 72.2 percent.

"If we clean that [penalty killing] up, it's a goal pretty much per game," Jets forward Adam Lowry said. "That's a big number. Some of it has been some of our own doing. Taking care of the puck is important. I don't think it's requires drastic change.

"Look at how well we defended the stretch before (19 goals against in previous 10 games, 7-2-1 record). It's just competing on pucks. There have been large stretches of our games lately where it has been good."

No. 1 goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who is 19-12-4, with a 2.69 goals-against average and .920 save percentage, has had to adapt to a new group of defensemen that includes Neal Pionk, Luca Sbisa, Anthony Bitetto, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom.

At the halfway point of the season, Hellebuyck said he can already feel the urgency of the second half.

"There are some accomplishments but there's also some hard times," he said. "Things are going to get interesting very soon here and we've got to start stringing together some wins. The playoff push is on."

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