A strange story that had grown cold over the past month is back in the spotlight once again with a new twist. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the National Hockey League Players’ Association has filed a grievance with the league challenging the suspension of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. The case will now go before an independent arbitrator, unless of course the two sides can come to an agreement beforehand.
Byfuglien, 34, has not played for the Jets this season and has been suspended without pay entirely thus far in 2019-20. This all began back in September, when Winnipeg announced that the veteran defender would be taking a leave of absence for undisclosed personal reasons. He reportedly was taking time to consider his playing future, despite having two years and $14MM in salary remaining on his contract. Many speculated that his absence could have less to do with wear and tear and more to do with personal issues. When training camp arrived and Byfuglien had still not reported, the Jets, in need of salary cap space, suspended him without pay indefinitely until the point that he either returned to action or formally retired.
At the time, there was no indication that Byfuglien’s leave or his sudden concern for his future were related to injury. However, the Jets may have been holding back information on his unexpected absence. Byfuglien underwent surprise ankle surgery in late October, after which the team announced that they were “aware” that he was considering the surgical option for a previously undisclosed injury. The team did add that they were not involved in the decision-making process and that Byfuglien went under the knife without any recommendation from the team’s medical staff.
Herein lies the upcoming battle between the NHL, defending the Jets, and the NHLPA, arguing for Byfuglien. The players’ association will argue that, had Byfuglien reported to camp with his injury and the team had agreed that it was a hockey-related injurythat requiredsurgery, he would be collecting his salary for this season. If his sudden consideration of retirement was fueled by injury concerns, but he chooses to work his way back into game shape and re-join the Jets, should he not have been compensated for that time? The NHLPA may also flirt with the possible punitive nature of this suspension. Byfuglien’s absence came as a shock to Winnipeg, who this summer allowed Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to walk as free agents and traded away Jacob Trouba, all under the impression that Byfuglien would be around for at least two more years. The team could not have been happy with his leave of absence and reportedly had been trying to convince him not to retire and return to play. However, if his injury also came as a surprise to the team, they may not have been willing to recommend surgery and end up just as short-handed on the blue line, but also paying Byfuglien’s salary. The NHL may feel that the Jets are punishing Byfuglien for blindsiding them, while still hoping that he will return. With that said, the league’s counter will simply be that Byfuglien did not abide by the terms of his contract. If he had concerns over an injury and his longevity in the game, he should have reported to camp and discussed those issues with the team. Winnipeg could also take issue with when and how the injury occurred and whether it was related to any previous injury issues. By taking a leave of absence and then undergoing unapproved surgery, the NHL will argue that Byfuglien cannot just retroactively say that his motivations are to play for the Jets again and he is thus deserving of his salary while he has kept the team in the dark on a number of matters this whole time.
Surely there is more to this story than has been revealed to the public and perhaps more will come out now that a grievance has been filed. There is no timeline as of yet for a potential arbitration hearing, though one would think it would have to come before Byfuglien has fully recovered from his ankle surgery and has the option to return to action with the Jets. In many cases, the NHLPA files a grievance on behalf of a player against his former team, making this an unusual case as Byfuglien remains Winnipeg property until he formally retires. Recent grievances related to issues with former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin and Los Angeles Kings forward Mike Richards were settled long after the initial dispute occurred. That may be different in this scenario. Stay tuned.