Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We saw Big Buff at his best

Often infuriating D-man does it all

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If you've been wondering what all the fuss is about in regard to Dustin Byfuglien and why the Winnipeg Jets care so much about him and his game, you got your answer Monday night.

Punishing, defensive, judicious and opportunistic describe Byfuglien's game and there was plenty of evidence to back an argument for calling him the best player on the ice. For both teams.

"This was Dustin's best game with the Jets," said head coach Claude Noel. "He's got a lot of tools. He can be a great player, not just for us but in this league. He can be outstanding."

There's been more ink spilled in the papers and more cell phone minutes racked up calling sports radio on the subject of Big Buff this season than any other.

It's been 'Buff this and Buff that' and lots of it has been negative as the Jets highest-paid player has struggled to find a balance between swashbuckling rover and dependable defender.

But the calls for his benching, or for a trade, have been flatly ignored by Jets management and the coaching staff for the simple reason that there's an all-star player fighting to break out under that size extra-large No. 33.

Maybe more than an all-star. Maybe a Norris Trophy candidate, as he was during the early going last season when he scored 20 goals and 33 assists to lead all NHL defencemen in goals.

Byfuglien is as big a talent as he is at times a mystery and giving up on him is not an option. The Jets need Byfuglien to be among their best players and when he is their ceiling rises.

Never has that been more evident than in Monday's 5-2 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning. The 6-5, 268-pound blue-liner found a mix of offence and defence that made him a threat at both ends of the ice with a goal, an assist and a plus-1 rating, as well as a couple of crunches that had Tampa players tip-toeing into the Jets defensive zone.

In short, Byfuglien was dominant and a player coach Claude Noel wanted on the ice all night.

Funny how it works that way, but coaches like to have players on the ice that make good things happen over and over again. That was Byfuglien, as he and defence partner Mark Stuart heard their numbers called again and again.

The Jets have some talented players on their roster but few have attributes like Byfuglien. He shoots the puck with accuracy and weight, he can be physically dominant and when he hits top gear he's a load to stop.

His skill package is rare -- in fact there's no one in the NHL quite like him.

All this makes his off-nights even more frustrating. When he's been off he's been really off. But Noel has refused to back off and continued to put faith in Byfuglien.

It was just one game, but the faith was rewarded Monday as time and again Byfuglien came through for his coach and his team.

The Jets are an ordinary team at best when Byfuglien isn't running hot.

But Monday night he pulled back the curtains to show what he can be and what it does to the complexion of the entire club when he's steaming.

It's pretty simple -- Byfuglien is the game changer with these Jets. So love him or hate him, but understand his importance, because it's unmatched on the Winnipeg Jets.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2011 C3

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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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