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Jets D-man shows up for camp looking fit as a fiddle

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The truth behind the impetus for Dustin Byfuglien to alter his body will likely never be known to us but it's very clear changes have been made.

Somebody got to him, whether it was his agent, a teammate or Jets management and Byfuglien showed up at Jets practice Monday in far better shape than Winnipeg has seen him.

How this impacts the Jets remains to be seen but coach Claude Noel spoke the other day about Byfuglien gaining more consistency and repeating what we've heard from the coach again and again, "how Buff goes is how we go."

The Jets have one player capable of winning a major NHL award based on play and that's Byfuglien and the Norris Trophy. Byfuglien at his best is elite and among only a handful of defencemen in the NHL.

The problem to this point, has been getting Byfuglien to hold his play at its highest level for long stretches. A lack of conditioning has been pointed to as the obstacle to such consistency. It appears Byfuglien has heard that message, accepted it as accurate and done something about it.

Byfuglien skated with the rest of his Jets teammates for the first time on Monday, taking a 20-minute twirl while looking fit and happy.

'... When he decides to take over a game, he has that ability'

-- Jets forward Blake Wheeler, on Byfuglien

Players have not been weighed or given medicals but a safe guess is that Byfuglien is 30 pounds lighter, and maybe as much as 40, from late in last season.

Reports came out this summer pegging his weight at 302 pounds at one point last season but he's clearly well below that weight and looked to be in his best condition since his arrival in Winnipeg in 2011.

Training camp doesn't officially open until Wednesday and Byfuglien was under no obligation to speak with the media and he exercised his option. Teammate and fellow Minnesota native Blake Wheeler, however, spoke about Buff's new look.

"He's committed himself to himself and the team. Most importantly, his head is in the right place. He put in hard work this summer," said Wheeler. "I haven't pinched him, I haven't put him on a scale yet. He looks really good and that's as far as I'll go. He worked really hard this summer and he's in a good place."

Last season was at times a struggle for Byfuglien, and he and Noel failed to stay on the same page. The coach took the step of moving his most talented player out of position and Byfuglien didn't take the change well. He bit his tongue but the strain was evident.

The exit meeting between the player and coach at season's end was very lengthy and reportedly heated.

Noel's job, in large part, hangs in the balance of Byfuglien's play.

It's not a stretch to suggest Byfuglien can move the Jets from an outsider to a playoff team. If Byfuglien struggles or is indifferent, the Jets won't be able to take a step forward, and Noel is likely out of chances to reach the post-season. He needs Byfuglien to raise his game and by extension the entire team's.

"He's a unique player. There aren't many like Buff in the NHL. You've seen it the last couple of years, when he decides to take over a game, he has that ability. If we get that out of Buff, it will be huge for our team," said Wheeler. "The most important thing is having his head in the right place. He wants to be an integral part of getting this team over the hump."

The key player in Byfuglien's evolution, however, likely isn't Noel. Certainly the coach has played a role but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is the more likely source of Byfuglien's motivation.

A few years back, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon spoke about motivating Byfuglien, explaining that during his time running the Chicago Blackhawks he'd learned a thing or two about the player from drafting him and bringing him along to the NHL.

Tallon said punishing Byfuglien wouldn't work and that an organization had to put its arms around the player and make him feel comfortable. A delicate balance of accountability and positive reinforcement needed to be struck.

Cheveldayoff knows the player well from their days of winning a Stanley Cup together in Chicago. Might there be a bit of a blind spot where Chevy and Buff are concerned? Maybe. Cheveldayoff may give off a cool exterior but he can run very hot and has strong emotions.

To make the conclusion there's a bond between the two men wouldn't be a great leap.

Many GMs would have traded, or at least tried to move Byfuglien. Cheveldayoff hasn't been interested in such a strategy. In many ways he's hung his hat on Byfuglien. Partially because players like this don't come along every day and maybe a little because of their connection.

Cheveldayoff has put his trust in Byfuglien. It looks like the player has done the same in return.

This story has long been about a player's heart. Maybe now it will be more about its strength rather than how fast it's beating.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2013 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 6:35 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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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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