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Has Buff right stuff?

Defenceman a team leader, but he’s not doing his job

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — If Dustin Byfuglien wants to be a forward, let him, because he’s making a hash of things right now as a defenceman.

Byfuglien is talented, no doubt, and loves to bull his way into the offensive zone and create havoc. The problem is he doesn’t have the ability or inclination to recover and get back into the play and protect his own goal. For a defenceman, well, that’s just unforgiveable.

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Byfuglien is not alone in his poor results to date, as the Jets’ 0-3 record will attest, but he’s an on-ice leader, and the team just has to get good play from him if they are to win games. He’s not a spare part, he’s a piston, and the Jets’ engine just isn’t firing right now.

The Jets need Byfuglien to be a force, and he has the raw ability to fulfil that expectation, but some harnessing or a change of position seems prudent.

Defence takes discipline and game management, two things Byfuglien isn’t displaying right now. Maybe playing forward isn’t the answer, but allowing his current playing trend to continue just won’t do. In his career body of work, there’s evidence to suggest forward is where he belongs.

He was unmanageable for teams when he skated up front with the Chicago Blackhawks and was a major factor as the young Hawks cut down the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers en route to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

There are very few possible responses to a 265-pound power forward in the NHL, and while the Jets struggle to find some offensive chemistry, Byfuglien could provide the tonic.

Winnipeg spends very little time as a team between the dots in the offensive zone, and in today’s NHL, that’s a recipe for no goals. Byfuglien can live and feast in that area and provide all kinds of room for linemates. He has produced in this role, and while the player may prefer his perch on the blue-line, he’s not giving his team what it needs right now.

Rule No. 1 for NHLers is defence first, and though there are plenty who like to freelance, it’s no good if it costs your team.

Byfuglien was minus-3 in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes and is now pointless and minus-3 on the season.

Pointless is an accurate way to describe his current approach to the game.

The disinterest in backchecking after offensive forays and lack of direction in his own zone are headscratchers. Byfuglien was a major producer from the point last season, piling up 20 goals and 33 assists, but the bulk of those points came in the first half of the campaign.

Teams figured out how to take advantage of his wandering ways and cut down his opportunities as the season grew older and games became more important.

Not coincidentally, the Jets, then known as the Atlanta Thrashers, plummeted in the standings from a playoff position to 12th in the Eastern Conference.

The Jets are now 0-3 and the current formula isn’t working.

Coach Claude Noel is looking for answers and has made a few tweaks, but adding and subtracting with fourth-liners and swapping around sixth and seventh defencemen is a lot like carrying an umbrella in a monsoon. You still end up all wet.

It’s too early to panic, and Jets management will be the first to say as much, but they’ve lost their sense of humour with three losses to open the season and anything that gives the team a little confidence should be welcomed.

The Jets can’t afford Byfuglien being an oddity who sometimes performs and sometimes goes his own way at the expense of his team. He’s no longer a man-child, as he was described during his early pro days; he’s a veteran and a leader, and the Jets need to be able to rely on him.

Right now, that’s a stretch.

Whether it’s on defence or up front, Byfuglien needs to find his game and some consistency.

Buff Lite won’t do. It’s time for Big Buff to show up and be counted.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

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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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