Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Transformed Big Buff sparks Jets' latest playoff surge

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Claude NOEL and Charlie Huddy have found a way to reach Dustin Byfuglien in a manner like no other coaches before them. The result has been the ascent of both the player and the Winnipeg Jets.

Byfuglien is, in Noel's words, "driving the bus," and the entire team has followed.

This time last season the Jets were known as the Atlanta Thrashers and were irrelevant in the hockey world but for the noise that surrounded them and a possible move to Winnipeg.

After busting out of the gate they crashed by mid-season and finished well out of the playoffs.

Under Noel and with Byfuglien leading the transformation, the Jets have become one of the biggest stories in hockey as they battle hammer and tong for a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament.

Teammate Chris Thorburn said Wednesday that Byfuglien has dragged his team along for the ride.

"He's playing simple and he's making all the right plays right now. As a team, he's a very strong personality in the room, and if he does it we almost all have to," said Thorburn. "He's very vocal in the dressing room when he thinks he needs to be and he's not afraid of confrontation. Our room is very close and he's a huge part of that."

Making the spectacular but risky choice has been abandoned by Byfuglien. He's still creating and producing but doing it with balance. With 10 goals and 32 assists, the Minnesota native ranks third in scoring among all NHL defencemen. He has found a way to be his most productive in the offensive zone while not costing his team defensively. He's graduated from prodigious oddity to a mature blue-liner that all teams covet.

Byfuglien is arguably among the league's top-10 defencemen today and still has room to improve. Put it this way, if Byfuglien continues to follow the path Noel and Huddy have put him on he'll be a member of Team USA at the next Olympics. He might not be a Norris Trophy candidate this season but that's well within his reach if his progression continues.

Noel preached from the very beginning that he didn't want to take the zest from Byfuglien's game, he just wanted to manage the spice a little better. Less is more was the thinking and as Byfuglien began to pick his spots a little better with great results, the coaching staff backed it with positive reinforcement.

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who drafted Byfuglien when he was in charge of personnel moves with the Chicago Blackhawks, told me earlier this year that reaching Byfuglien takes the right approach.

"You have to put your arms around him and guide him in the right direction. If you try to push him or pull him, it won't work," Tallon said. "He has to trust you and believe in you."

Byfuglien is not without complications. He's hugely talented but sabotages his success to a degree with a lack of conditioning. He had a difficult childhood and left home to play junior hockey at the age of 15.

His teammates love him and he's a natural leader. He doesn't have to ask people to follow him. They just do. That's why his decision to change his game, and this is all about Byfuglien making a choice, has been so impactful with the Jets.

When Byfuglien plays fast and loose, his teammates do too. When he combines defensive responsibility and game management with his vast array of talents, he's a force. Maturity seems to have reached Byfuglien and perhaps an arrest this summer slapped him with some reality or maybe the birth of his daughter had an effect. Regardless, he's become a different player.

With 15 games remaining on the schedule, the Jets and their playoff fortunes remain up in the air. There is one certainty, however; If Byfuglien reverts to his old ways the Jets will quietly fade out of the picture.

Should he continue to provide his brand of leadership through trustworthy but still aggressive play, the Jets will be more than just a relocation story. They'll be a success story.

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

Jets Report C3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2012 C1

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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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