- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Big Buff is off the NHL free-agent market.

NHL teams looking to add a rental defenseman before the trade deadline will have to look elsewhere as the Winnipeg Jets signed Dustin Byfuglien to a $38 million, five-year extension. The 30-year-old Byfuglien will be part of the Jets’ long-range plan at a salary-cap hit of $7.6 million and is relieved he doesn’t have to worry about finding a new landing spot this summer as an unrestricted free agent.

“It never really crossed my mind going anywhere,” Byfuglien said. “You can’t win a Stanley Cup overnight. It’s a process, and I feel they’re in the right state, so I thought I’d run with them.”

Byfuglien was at the forefront of the Jets’ first playoff appearance last spring in their fourth season in Winnipeg. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, Byfuglien is a unique two-way force who can put up points, defend and deliver big hits.

That combination would have made him sought-after ahead of the Feb. 29 deadline. It also makes him a valuable piece of Winnipeg’s present and future.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was in Chicago’s front office when the Blackhawks traded Byfuglien as part of a cap crunch, believes off-ice maturation is as important as his on-ice contributions.

“To see him grow into the family man that he is, he’s got a wonderful family, proud to all Winnipeg his home for the foreseeable future here - those are the things of maturity,” Cheveldayoff said. “He’s obviously a very smart hockey player that has unique abilities on the ice. But I think it’s that maturation of a person that has allowed him to understand how he can take his games to other levels, as well.”

Byfuglien has 15 goals and 17 assists this season, and those 32 points have him tied for 13th among defensemen. He leads the Jets with an average ice time of 24:14 and believes his best hockey is ahead of him.

“As the years have gone by, I feel every year I’ve gotten a little bit better and better, matured more and figured out how to be a pro better,” said Byfuglien, who has been named an All-Star twice since coach Paul Maurice moved him back to the blue line full time.

With Byfuglien off the board, Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks and Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers are among the top rental defensemen available. One of the top pending free agent forwards available is Jets captain Andrew Ladd.

Cheveldayoff didn’t want to comment on where negotiations stand with Ladd. The Jets are last in the Central Division with 49 points but have short- and long-term playoff aspirations after making it last season, and the Ladd situation is the next big decision for the franchise with Byfuglien signed.

“There’s lots of pieces to the puzzle,” Cheveldayoff said. “You don’t deal with any one thing in a singular fashion. There’s lots of moving parts behind the scenes that obviously we have got a lot of work to do ahead of us.”

NOTE: Jets forward Drew Stafford was suspended one game and will forfeit $23,387 for high-sticking Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nick Holden on Saturday. Stafford will miss Winnipeg’s game Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues.

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