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Dustin Byfuglien’s suspension by Jets challenged by NHLPA

The National Hockey League Players' Association is stepping into what has been a complicated situation between Dustin Byfuglien and the Winnipeg Jets. (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

The NHLPA filed a grievance on Wednesday challenging Dustin Byfuglien’s suspension by the Winnipeg Jets, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Pierre LeBrun of TSN and The Athletic.

The development is the latest in what has been quite the series of events unfolding in Manitoba over the past few months.

Byfuglien was originally granted a personal leave of absence at the beginning of training camp on Sept. 13. At the time, it was believed that the blueliner was considering retirement. Just over a week later on Sept. 21, he was suspended without pay by the Jets for failing to report to training camp.

On Sept. 22, Jets head coach Paul Maurice told reporters that the move was “absolutely procedural” and Byfuglien knew that.

Due to Winnipeg’s tight salary cap situation, the move was beneficial for the team’s front office because it took Byfuglien’s $7.6 million AAV off of the books until he returned. Essentially, it helped allow general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine on Sept. 27 and Kyle Connor on Sept. 28.

This is where things began to turn.

It was later reported by TSN’s Darren Dreger that Byfuglien underwent surgery in October to repair issues associated with a high ankle sprain sustained last season. It was believed that he would need at least four months to recover.

As TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported last month, this ankle was a big reason why he didn’t attend training camp in the first place.

Therefore, if it’s determined that Byfuglien was in fact hurt playing hockey, things could get very interesting when it comes to the (millions of) dollars and cents on the line here.

Friedman reported earlier this month that this situation could end up in arbitration. The conflicting information coming from the two sides would seemingly be a big reason why. The Jets say that Byfuglien was fit to play after his 2018-19 season-ending physical, he didn’t mention his ankle was bugging him over the summer and that he expressed his desire to retire at the beginning of this season.

However — as McKenzie tweeted at the end of October — if Byfuglien’s ankle truly was this bad, why wouldn’t he report to Winnipeg’s training camp, go on injured reserve and get paid while he recovers?

The facts on both sides simply don’t add up and that’s why this entire situation has been so shady from the outside looking in. Are the Jets just going with their story to ease their salary cap situation? (According to CapFriendly, Winnipeg has just under $5 million in cap space right now with Byfuglien off the books and four players — including Bryan Little — on injured reserve.) Was Byfuglien’s injury actually sustained during an NHL game or elsewhere? If the latter is the case, it would explain the unusual approach to the predicament throughout the summer and into training camp. Or is this the result of a mix of things? Did Byfuglien initially plan to retire due to lingering injuries (or whatever reason) before Cheveldayoff signed Laine and Connor and then decide to make a comeback, a choice that now would completely screw the team’s salary cap situation?

These are the questions that we’ll hopefully be closer to answering with the grievance the NHLPA filed.

Byfuglien is currently in the second-last season of a five-year, $38 million deal that he inked back in February of 2016, according to CapFriendly. The final three years of the contract include a Modified No-Trade Clause.

He has yet to see any of his $8 million salary this season.

The 34-year-old led the Jets in average ice time last season, logging over 24 minutes a game. However, he was limited to only 42 regular season games due to a variety of ailments including an upper-body injury in October, a concussion in November, a lower-body injury which appeared to be the result of his ankle rolling in December that cost him 15 games and another ankle injury in February.

Although he played just ten regular season games after Dec. 29, he returned for the playoffs and led Winnipeg with eight points (two goals and six assists) in six postseason games.

A Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, Byfuglien has scored 177 goals and collected 525 points in 869 regular season games over his career.

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