Call to the Hall: Winnipeg Jets

Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series, Call to the Hall, where we take a look at the next great player from each NHL franchise to get called to the Hockey Hall of Fame. There are a few caveats, the player must be active, and must have played 300 games (or 150 for goaltenders) with the franchise.

Call to the Hall: Winnipeg Jets

Just for clarification right from the start, this is only going to cover the current franchise in Winnipeg, which includes the Atlanta Thrashers, so there won’t be any messy old Jets/Phoenix Coyotes debates.

That said, it greatly, greatly reduces the list of potential Hall-of-Famers we could consider, which is  unsurprising for a franchise that entered the league in 1999 and has just two playoff appearances to show for it. The franchise does have one of the great defensemen of his generation in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Chris Chelios – who played just seven games with the Thrashers in 2010, his final NHL games, recording zero points.

An obvious choice for this series would have been Ilya Kovalchuk, the explosive Russian who captured a Rocket Richard and scored five consecutive 40+ goal seasons in Atlanta. However, since his “retirement” as an active NHL player, he won’t be put in this spot…although he may pop up again at some point.

Which leaves us with a pretty small pool to choose from. There’s current captain Andrew Ladd, who has won two Stanley Cups with two different teams, but doesn’t quite have the offensive stats. Winger Bryan Little is an option as well, but the junior scoring phenom hasn’t quite produced at a rate many thought he could in the NHL.

Defenseman Toby Enstrom made the NHL’s All-Rookie Team back in 2007-08, but is suddenly 30 years old and likewise hasn’t become the star d-man many hoped he would become. That isn’t to say he hasn’t been a monster on the blueline for the Jets/Thrash, and he certainly could have been a viable option for this entry in the series if it weren’t for one much bigger monster.

Dustin Byfuglien

When Byfuglien was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2003, he was a project with NHL size (he’s currently listed at 6’5″ and 265 pounds – a number that is often disputed), but hadn’t shown much on the offensive side of the puck at the junior level. He would find his game though as a Prince George Cougar, scoring 58 points and 184 penalty minutes in 64 games during his final junior season.

Byfuglien split his first two professional seasons between the Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate in Norfolk, and it wasn’t until the 2007-08 season that he became a full-time NHL regular, scoring a goal in his first NHL shift against the St. Louis Blues.

Though drafted as a defenseman, Chicago would transition Byfuglien to forward, where his big body created chaos for opposing goaltenders on the power play (his battles against then Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo in the playoffs were particularly infamous) and earned him the nickname “Big Buff.” Of Byfuglien’s 36 points in 67 games as a rookie, 17 were on the power play.

Byfuglien will never be confused for a great playmaker, and as a result has never put up huge assist/point totals (again, he has done most of his damage in front of the net), but he produced well over his first three full NHL seasons, scoring between 15-19 goals and 31-36 points.

The 2009-10 post-season would be, as it was for many Blackhawks, a coming out party of sorts for Byfuglien, when he became a true force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. Byfuglien finished 3rd in goals with 11 in 22 games, including six points in six games against Philadelphia in the final, to help Chicago to the Stanley Cup.

This is where the Jets franchise ultimately comes into the equation, as he was jettisoned to Atlanta in the 2010 offseason in what amounted to nothing more than a salary dump by the Blackhawks.

In Atlanta Byfuglien would be moved back to defense, partially because of a lack of depth and experience on the Thrashers blueline at the time, and partially due to injuries (the team used 12 different defensemen that season). Byfuglien responded with new career highs in goals (20) assists (33) and points (53) to finish 4th among all NHL defensemen.

Since the move to Winnipeg, Byfuglien has been one of the league’s best offensive players on the back end. In 256 games with the Jets, Byfuglien has scored 58 goals (4th in the NHL over the last four seasons) and 182 points (3rd, behind only Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban). He is, without a doubt, one of the elite offensive defensemen currently in the NHL.

In total, Byfuglien has scored 133 goals and 344 points in 597 NHL games for a career 0.58 goals per game average. He’s hit the 20-goal plateau twice, and the 50-point mark thrice, impressive totals for a defenseman. He’s also proven his value as a heavy hitter, thrice exceeding 200 hits in a season. Notably, he’s been named to play in three NHL All-Star Games (appearing twice).

While Byfuglien has built a solid career, and is certainly one of the most intimidating players in the NHL, it’s hard to make any argument that he should be considered for the Hockey Hall of Fame. That he played a significant role in a Stanley Cup championship certainly helps, as does the fact that he’s been one of the league’s best offensive d-men for years. However, an empty international resume and no personal accolades to speak of, in addition to the fact it’s unlikely he will ever reach any major milestones, make his hall induction a very long shot at best.

There is, however, one huge caveat: Whether or not Byfuglien could one day win the Norris Trophy. Byfuglien has finished in the top-15 of Norris voting four times in his career, finishing as high as 7th. Given his offensive acumen, intimidating physicality, and the potential for this Jets team to improve with an influx of youth, it’s not inconceivable for Byfuglien to have a monster season at some point in the near future which could propel him into the Norris conversation.

As noted in a previous article in this series, you’d have to go back more than three decades to find a Norris winner who is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame (among eligible candidates). So, as it stands now Byfuglien is nowhere near the hall, but a Norris on his mantle just might have him knocking on the door one day.

Main Photo: