Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Should Buff stay or should Buff go?

Blue-liner needs to learn when to rush and when to hang back

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TAMPA, Fla. -- He is the lightning rod. He makes big money, has big talent and makes big mistakes.

He's Dustin Byfuglien and rightly or wrongly he gets blamed for much of the defensive woes being experienced by the Winnipeg Jets.

A few things are certain: Byfuglien logs heavy minutes and is the centrepiece of the Jets blue-line. Until he gets his game operating with higher efficiency, the Jets will struggle.

There's no two ways about it. Byfuglien is going to play and play lots. He must be good for the Jets to consistently win.

The positive side is Byfuglien can be better than good. He can be great.

A few things must happen first -- he needs to figure out a way to better manage his game and he must get in shape. It's official: After weeks of watching him haul his 265-pound frame up the ice and then float back when the play reverses, Byfuglien is not fit enough to play the way he wants to play -- and frankly, must play -- for the Jets to have success.

Winnipeg's offence is paltry and needs the boost Byfuglien can provide when he rushes the puck. But those forays are not always going to be successful. When they're not, Byfuglien must be able to get back in the play. That's something he simply can't do right now.

Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy watches Byfuglien on a daily basis, much like he did hall of famer Paul Coffey during his playing career with the Edmonton Oilers. Coffey played a similar style to Byfuglien, in that he joined or led the rush and was always an offensive threat. Where Coffey differed was he rarely got caught and his risk often ended in reward.

Byfuglien cannot say the same to this point, but Huddy says it can be achieved.

"Coff was just such a great skater, and Buff is a great skater, but Coff managed his game real well. He knew the times to get involved, when he should or when he shouldn't," said Huddy. "The other thing with Coffey, when he got up in the play, he was such a great skater he never got caught. That's the other thing we need to work on with Buff. He's a great skater too and we don't want to take his ability to be up in the play away. We also have to work on him coming back and getting into position to defend. Also when to go."

Huddy says there are some keys that if implemented, could help Byfuglien.

"Maybe shortening his shifts, maybe a good, hard 40 seconds from him and then off. He's still going to get his minutes," Huddy said.

"It's all part of his game he has to work on. His fitness was OK. You always want the guy's fitness to meet the level he's going to play at -- it's probably something that needs to be worked on. But a lot of it is managing your shifts. If you've been in your end for 20 or 25 seconds, it's not the time to join the rush."

Huddy understands Byfuglien must be good for the Jets to thrive.

"I've told him that. I've told him he's a big part of this team and he's going to generate offence for us and we want to be able to count on him to play against top lines," Huddy said. "We need to be able to use him and Toby (Enstrom) against the best. Yeah, we want the offence, but there are nights when you're going to play against (Jaromir) Jagr and we're going to need them to just defend."

It's the great struggle for Jets coach Claude Noel and his most important challenge -- getting the best out of Buff.

The Jets aren't trading Byfuglien and Noel can't work around him. He's too important, and at $4.25 million a season, too expensive. Byfuglien is Winnipeg's most important player. He must be solved.

This problem isn't going away and it must be fixed. The sooner the better.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 C3

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Updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 8:42 AM CDT: adds missing word

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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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