Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Enough of Buff and his gaffes and giveaways

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It is time for some addition by subtraction: The Winnipeg Jets need to move Dustin Byfuglien and get the most they can for him.

Less Buff will be best for the Jets now and going forward.

Whether it's at the trade deadline or this summer when the salary cap rises and loosens up the market, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to do what he can to get a return for Byfuglien.

In the interim, coach Claude Noel should limit his minutes. The addiction to Byfuglien has to end. It's killing the Jets and Noel's future as head coach.

It's impossible for the coach to preach system and puck management when one of his minutes leaders refuses to buy in. It's time to stop thinking about Byfuglien's potential and look at his reality. He's a hazard.

But Lord, can he take your breath away, many will argue. He sure can, but the risk outweighs the reward when the present and future of this team are taken into account.

'Not consistent. Not playing my top. Something I have to figure out myself'

-- Dustin Byfuglien, speaking Monday, about his performance on the weekend

Last season, it was easy to blame Byfuglien's woes on his weight and lack of fitness. It was a mirage that I bought into. Playing in the neighbourhood of 300 pounds doesn't help, but fitness or a lack thereof is not what primarily holds Byfuglien back. It's his refusal to play responsible hockey.

"Not consistent. Not playing my top. Something I have to figure out myself," said Byfuglien, when asked about his game on Monday. "Slow down and play the game the way I should be. Keep it simple. I might be playing a little too fast for myself right now. Tighten it up."

Byfuglien might be the greatest river hockey player in the world. But this ain't a Saturday morning skate with pals. It's the NHL, and opponents are living off Byfuglien's gaffes when they come up against the Jets. Teams now enter games expecting to prey on Byfuglien and his poor puck management.

Noel can no longer rely on him. If that means going with a player with no offensive upside and a heightened reliance on whipping the puck off the glass, so be it. It's better than feeding Evgeni Malkin in the slot all night and damaging your goalie's back from twisting to fish the puck out of the net.

Sunday, Byfuglien was at his worst, serving up a pair of giveaways that directly led to Pittsburgh goals in a 6-5 loss for the Jets. Byfuglien leads the Jets in ice time, averaging just over 26 minutes per game. Of the top-10 ice-time leaders in the NHL, Byfuglien has the worst plus/minus rating at -14. He is also second in the league in giveaways at 55.

Byfuglien is a fit for a team needing a power-play specialist or an offensive-minded defenceman who will play limited minutes. Tying a team's cart to him and giving him 25-plus minutes per game doesn't work.

Maybe Noel has stuck with Byfuglien because of a shortage of options. Or maybe because he's afraid of the ripple effect it will have in the dressing room.

Regardless, it's time to move off the current strategy of giving Byfuglien big minutes. It's not working. With Byfuglien, less is more, and the Jets must adopt this strategy immediately.

Sitting in my office, banging away at the keyboard, it's easy for me to say, "Trade Byfuglien." Cheveldayoff, however, must deal with reality and try to find a partner and get fair return. Right now, that won't be easy.

Every GM in the NHL read the accounts written by ESPN's Scott Burnside and USA Today's Kevin Allen on the making of Team USA and that committee's findings regarding Byfuglien.

"If he's going to have to play minutes defensively, boy, right now he's a high-risk guy," said scout Don Waddell, who, by the way, was overseeing all things Atlanta Thrashers when Byfuglien was signed to his current contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.2 million for this season and two to follow.

What could Cheveldayoff expect to get for Byfuglien? If we're talking futures, maybe a first-round pick and a Grade A prospect. A roster player? Maybe a second or third pairing defenceman and a third-round pick. Or a top six forward and a late pick.

Byfuglien is 28 and he's not changing. Soon his value will begin to diminish. It's clear he's not meant to be a foundation piece and the Jets need to begin living this reality immediately.

GM David Poile repeatedly asked his Team USA selection committee, "Can we trust Byfuglien to play in this tournament?"

In the end, the answer was no.

As it must now be for Noel.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Is it time to say bye-bye to Byfuglien? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2014 C2

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 7:02 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds question for discussion

8:29 AM: corrects formatting of fact box

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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