Toby Enstrom’s time with the Winnipeg Jets is likely over, and his apparent exit is not without some controversy.
Enstrom was a surprise scratch in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Vegas that sent the Jets packing and the Golden Knights on to the Stanley Cup final. It’s a move that isn’t sitting well with the veteran blue-liner.
According to sources, Enstrom was not happy about coach Paul Maurice’s decision to exclude him because he’d played through the Western Conference finals with a serious rib injury. One person, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on the topic, said Enstrom had suffered “broken ribs,” but didn’t say when the injury occurred or how many games he played afterward.
Unlike the majority of his teammates, Enstrom didn’t meet with the media Tuesday after players cleaned out their lockers and held final meetings with coaches and management. Reporters who made requests to speak with him were told he was “long gone.”
When Maurice took the podium later in the day, he was specifically asked if Enstrom had been playing through broken ribs.
“No, he had dealt with broken bones in his feet during the year. But nothing broken,” he said.
Maurice said it was a difficult decision to take the 33-year-old Enstrom out for a must-win elimination game but felt it was better to bring some fresh legs to the lineup. He also pulled defenceman Ben Chiarot and Andrew Copp for the game while inserting Dmitry Kulikov, Joe Morrow and Joel Armia in their place.
“The conversations with all three of them aren’t easy, especially when you factor in the number of injuries Toby has played with over my time here, broken bones, and fought through. It was a difficult conversation to have, but you have to have those conversations when you believe what you’re doing is right,” he said.
“We were looking for some legs and for some jump. We needed it at that time.”
Enstrom was in the final season of a five-year, US$28.75-million deal and is a pending unrestricted free agent. He has spent his entire 11-year career with the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise after being selected by the Thrashers in the eighth round — 239th overall — of the 2003 NHL Draft.
“You know, Toby’s a special player in this organization. And regardless of how things move forward, whether he chooses play again and then whether there’s an opportunity to play here, that chapter of things is still to be written,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said Tuesday when asked if the door might be open on either side for a potential return.
Enstrom agreed last summer to waive his no-trade clause so the Jets could expose him in the expansion draft in order to protect several other valuable skaters.
“Toby was the first person we signed to an extension when the franchise moved here. Toby had a contract and was going to be coming to unrestricted free agency and he was the first player that said, ‘I want to believe in this process and I do believe in this process.’ There was a feeling that this could be a really good place to play and a good place to be a part of,” said Cheveldayoff.
Age and injuries have caught up to Enstrom, who had just one goal and five assists in 43 regular-season games this year. He was held off the scoresheet in 11 playoff games. For his career, Enstrom has 54 goals and 254 assists in 719 career regular-season games with the franchise.
“The way Toby has sacrificed his body at different points in time, as Paul mentioned, playing with maybe multiple broken bones at a different point in time even this year. And again, going back to the conversation I had with him around this time or probably a little bit earlier last summer, about wanting to keep this group together,” said Cheveldayoff. “So there’s a lot of selfless acts that went along the way with what he did on the ice — and all because he hoped at one point it would lead to the eventual success.”
If this is indeed it for Enstrom, teammate Tyler Myers says he’ll be missed dearly.
“Toby’s the best. He’s one of the more easygoing guys to get to know in a room. He’s done so much for this team and this organization. What he did last year in the summer during the expansion stuff with Vegas was a huge sacrifice for this group,” Myers said Tuesday. “I think it’s safe to say every guy in the room appreciates Toby Enstrom. He’s a guy I’ll look up to no matter what happens going forward here.”