Winnipeg Jets Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien

Dustin Byfuglien has become the player Jets fans always wanted –

Anybody who has been a Winnipeg Jets fan since the NHL’s return to the Manitoba capital in 2011 remembers it as clear as day – Dustin Byfuglien’s first shift as a Winnipeg Jet.

It was the pre-season home opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was the very first shift of that game.  Dustin Byfuglien played the role of bowling ball and a number of Blue Jackets played bowling pins as Byfuglien, seemingly effortlessly, absolutely destroyed any Jackets player who came near him, then offered a smile and nod to the adoring crowd as he made his way to the penalty box.

It was one of the most physically dominant shifts of hockey one would ever see, and it entranced an entire fan base.  If this was the Dustin Byfuglien that Jets fans were going to see game in and game out, then some people suggested he could be a potential Norris Trophy winner one day.

The problem?  Not surprisingly, a shift like that isn’t easily replicated and Byfuglien was rarely that physically dominant.  Over the next two and a half seasons, Dustin Byfuglien’s offensive talent would tease and tantalize.  Even without putting his impressive physicality at the forefront, his offensive skills would often leave fans with their jaw on the floor.

December 12, 2013-Jets-Avs-16

Dustin Byfuglien is playing like an All-Star

Unfortunately, at times, his defensive shortcomings had the same breath-taking effect.  And the amount of times that he was on the ice not using his physicality in defensive situations was even more frustrating for many fans.  And coaches.  

In a last desperate attempt to get the Jets righted midway through the 2013-2014 season, head coach Claude Noel shifted Byfuglien up to forward, despite the hulking superstar’s reluctance to play up front.  Even though Noel was soon after relieved of his head coaching duties soon after and replaced by Paul Maurice, Big Buff finished the season at forward, and started 2014-2015 there as well.  That wasn’t a perfect solution either.

I had suggested months ago that one of the big problems with slotting Byfuglien in somewhere in the Jets lineup was he was better defensively up front, and way better offensively from the blue line.  Then fate stepped in.  Jets defencemen started dropping like flies and soon it was either going to be moving Dustin Byfuglien back to defence, or forcing Charlie Huddy to abandon his assistant coach role to take a spot on the depleted defence corps.  So, Byfuglien was moved back, with much skepticism from some, including myself.  

He immediately became the Jets number one defenceman and immediately paid dividends.  He provided instant impact, and stability.  It is easy to argue that if Norris Trophy voting was based on play just since the start of December when Buff made the move, that if he wouldn’t be the clear-cut winner, he’d be a top three finalist.  Want more proof?  Maybe the only time in NHL history that an NHL player was selected to the All-Star game for a position they had only played for five weeks of that season.

Yes, he’s been that good.

October 24, 2014-Jets-Lightning-09

Angry Buff equals good Buff?

What’s made him so good?  His commitment to defence has been better than at any other time he has been on the Jets blue line.  His offensive instincts and abilities remain astounding.  He is playing with discipline when it comes to shift lengths and choosing when to take risks.  And, he is bringing his dominating physicality every game.

Dustin Byfuglien has been absolutely terrorizing opponents with his physical dominance. He has been hitting people with stunning effect.  Make no mistake, the league is taking notice of what Byfuglien is up to these days, and forwards are likely making that extra check to see if Byfuglien is anywhere nearby.  Being in the opposition’s heads like that is a significant competitive advantage for the Jets.

One of the impressive things about Byfuglien’s physical play is he is getting it done within the defensive system that Maurice is preaching.  He isn’t having to skate across the ice to find someone, or hang his defensive partner out to dry.  He is doing it responsibly, effectively and without equal in the league right now. Arguably, Byfuglien is the most physically dominating played in the National Hockey League right now.

Over the past few seasons, I can’t count the number of conversations I have been a part of where someone, including myself, has lamented that we rarely got to see the Dustin Byfuglien we saw that first pre-season game back in 2011.
That has changed dramatically this year since Maurice moved Byfuglien back to his favourite spot to be.  That is the Buff we are seeing more often than not.

Charlie Huddy3

Charlie Huddy is getting the best out of Big Buff!

Where that’s coming from is unclear, but it’s easy to hazard a guess.  There is a common perception that Buff is at his very best when he’s angry.  Not an out of control anger but the type that brings focus, intensity and determination.  It appears that Maurice, or Huddy, or a combination of the two have effectively gotten the best out of Byfuglien.  

My assumption is that Maurice has told him that if he wants to stay on the blue line, which he does, they have an expectation of how he needs to play – exactly as he has been.  Make no mistake, Byfuglien himself isn’t enough to get these Jets into the playoff promised land. But a strong, disciplined and dedicated Buff certainly gives them a better chance dominating on the blue line than this team had with him up front.

And, Byfuglien won’t be perfect. Byfuglien can at times be high risk, high reward. He has offensive instincts like few other players in the league and he will act on those instincts often.  He is right more often than he is wrong, but there will be times, like every other offensive defenceman in the league, where he guesses wrong and the puck ends up in the Jets net.  It is just one of the realities you have to accept with this type of talent.

Dustin Byfuglien has become the player most of us wanted him to be when the Atlanta Thrashers made the move to Winnipeg, and he is showing no signs that he has any intention of not being that guy any time soon.
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