IT’S said a leopard can’t change its spots, but maybe a hockey player can. Every player in the NHL is talented, but it is work that sets the very best apart. This may have been lost on Dustin Byfuglien in the past, but there’s evidence he’s now decided to add toil to his already vast repertoire.
Byfuglien has never been known as a "first-on and last-off" kind of guy when it comes to practice.
Twice this week, however, Byfuglien could be spotted all alone on a clean, early-morning sheet at the MTS Centre working on the finer points of his game.
In baseball, they call a Mr. Everything a five-tool player, and Byfuglien is hockey’s equivalent. He can shoot, skate, stickhandle, hit and defend. His tool kit is both wide-ranging and specialized at the same time. Want a piano moved? Byfuglien can do it. Need a delicate touch to play that piano? Buff’s got it.
To this point in his career, there’s been a disconnect between that talent and his commitment to the craft. Like a rock singer who is born with pipes but never does any vocal exercise, Byfuglien has relied on his gifts rather than sharpen them.
‘Not many players can do the things he can do’
—Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy, on Dustin Byfuglien
No player on the Winnipeg Jets can take his game to the places Byfuglien can take his. He is different than the rest of his teammates in the vastness of his talent. Others have special parts to their game. Byfuglien is simply special.
Yet Byfuglien has consistently been accused of underachieving. Great for a shift or a game and then caught loafing the next. Brilliant has been used to describe him at times. Frustrating at others.
While it’s too early to tell if Byfuglien has fundamentally changed, it is clear there have been adjustments. He’s leaner and more eager. He’s still got the superstar cool but he’s adopted a little bit of a lunch-box mentality.
At 28, after a season that saw his weight rise to an unmanageable level resulting in major friction with his coach, Byfuglien has made some changes.
Whether it’s Noel’s carping, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s nudging or the opportunity to be an Olympian, Byfuglien is a different person these days.
On Thursday morning, Byfuglien was on the ice with a bucket of pucks and assistant coach Charlie Huddy, long before anyone else. Huddy stood in the corner flipping pucks off the wall and Byfuglien worked on a snapshot one-timer. Not a slapshot but a snapshot. He didn’t cup the puck and then snap it but hit it on the move.
A remarkable show of strength and hand-eye coordination. Huddy was asked after the skate if he’d ever seen another player able to complete such a feat.
"Not with that power or that accuracy. It’s incredible," said Huddy, who has seen some wondrous talents from his days with the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and others.
Huddy knows a world-class talent when he sees one and he puts Byfuglien in rare company.
"Not many players can do the things he can do," said Huddy.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has signed the core of his team to long-term contracts and added a little youth through the draft and some skill via trades or free agency. But nothing he’s done can make the Jets a better team than Byfuglien can all by himself.
If Byfuglien remains the same player we saw last season, he will hold the Jets in their current state. But every step he makes forward can propel this club.
It can’t be overstated. Byfuglien can make more of a difference to the Jets than any of his teammates. He can be transcendent. No one else can. So far the returns on the new Buff have been inconclusive. The attitude adjustment and escalated work ethic can’t just be summer and pre-season things. They need to be pervasive and become everyday habits.
The Jets have asked Byfuglien to make some changes. He has complied.
The trick now is to have his altered approach translate into consistent, high-level play. Byfuglien can provide the kind of blue-line work few teams can count on and those that have it often call themselves contenders.
If Buff is indeed going to be better, the Jets will follow. The question remaining is whether this is real or just a tease?
The answer will tell you most of what you need to know about this edition of the Winnipeg Jets.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @garylawless