The argument was often made if Dustin Byfuglien ever got serious he'd be a Norris Trophy candidate. Proof meet pudding.
Playing the best hockey of his career, Byfuglien has transformed from an oddity to a commodity.
Midway through last season he was in a battle with his own team over conditioning and his style of play. Today he's coach Claude Noel's favourite player and a contender to play for Team USA at the Olympics.
Having the name Dustin Byfuglien and the word Olympian in the same sentence would have drawn sneers and scoffs last season. No longer. Losing in the neighbourhood of 30 pounds in the off-season and deciding to focus on the defensive side of the game, rather than play rover every other shift, has changed how the hockey world sees Byfuglien.
"We've had a lot of scouting on Winnipeg in person and on TV. We have a committee of seven guys involved and watching and we've had a number of conference calls, and Buff is clearly in the mix," said David Poile, GM of both the Predators and Team USA. "We probably are pretty sure on three or four guys and then there are 10 other guys that are up in the air, of which Buff is one."
Byfuglien has not only overcome his reputation as a player more known for risk than reward, but also the stigma of refusing to play for Team USA at the world championships the last couple of springs.
"We've gotten past that," said Poile, before moving on to extol Byfuglien's attributes. "His size jumps out at you. Who doesn't want size on a team? He skates great for a big man. His hockey sense is real good. His ability to generate offence is real good. The bigger ice surface, I think, would favour his game. He's got some real good things going for him."
Noel has said on a number of occasions this season that Byfuglien has been his most consistent player.
"He's been reliable. He's taken the ups and downs out of his game," said Noel. "He's minimized the risk in his game and this leads to way more stability in our back end... He hasn't traded the offence for just defence. You see it in the numbers we track. We track scoring chances for and against when a player is on the ice. They're a lot better this year than last year. He's on the ice against the other team's better players all the time and often that makes a player a minus in the numbers we track, but clearly he's been better in that area this year."
Poile said Byfuglien was a bit of wild card for his selection committee this summer.
"Buff's body of work got him to the orientation camp. But there are situations and circumstances with every player that you need to know more about. Conditioning aspects," said Poile. "We've had lots of discussions with other GMs that have maybe had (Byfuglien) before. Talked to his coach, to his GM."
Getting Byfuglien to buy in was a major project for Noel and Jets management this summer. The payoff has been there for both sides as the Jets got an elite player from within their own system, while Byfuglien has been able to realize more of his vast potential.
While Byfuglien has raised his game he's also raised the bar. Seeing what he's done so far it's become evident he can do even more. There's no reason Byfuglien's name shouldn't be mentioned with the Shea Webers and Zdeno Charas of the NHL.
The Jets have a world-class player in their midst. Byfuglien has taken the first step. The question is, will this satisfy him or make him hungry for more?
Byfuglien can take it even farther. He can be among the best. The Jets need to find a way to push him to the next level. It's what is best for both the player and the team. Win, win.
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