Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION
OK, OK, Buff can stay
LOS ANGELES — No longer shall I bellow in this space that Dustin Byfuglien should be traded.
Call it a mea culpa, call it a change of heart. Call it whatever you want. The Jets are 14-10-4 with Byfgulien as a forward and 19-22-5 with him as a defenceman. The move is working.
Blue-line Buff sometimes held the Jets back, but Byfuglien the power forward will help propel this team forward. They’ve collected 32 points in 28 games with him at forward for an average of 1.14 points per game. Using that average for the 74 games the Jets had played entering Saturday’s contest, they would have 84 points today — tied for the eighth and final wild-card berth.
There are a lot of "ifs" to this logic. Certainly Buff the Forward isn’t the entire reason for the uptick. New head coach Paul Maurice, who came in one game after Byfuglien moved up from his post on the blue-line, just might have something to do with the improvement.
But no doubt the combination of moving Byfuglien up front and installing Maurice has resulted in a better hockey team.
Part of the equation is fewer errors in the defensive zone, but it’s more about puck possession and Byfuglien brings a lot to the table here.
Maurice says the Jets want to move from a team always worrying about what’s happening in their own zone to one that dominates the game in the offensive zone.
"That’s where we’re trying to get to. We talk about our offensive zone, it’s where we want to be able to hold the puck and not throw it away," said Maurice. "You have to have size and you have to have speed and be able to move to do that. If you’re not a big guy you better be quick to be able to keep the puck."
Winnipeg’s team Corsi and Fenwick numbers, statistics which track puck possession through shots for and against, have marginally improved with Byfuglien as a forward.
Byfuglien had tied his career high for points in a season with 53 prior to Saturday’s game, with 20 goals and 33 assists. His goal production has improved up front, with 11 on the wing against nine on defence, while his assist totals have dipped — he had 23 in 46 games on the point and has just 10 in 28 games as a forward.
Ollie Jokinen has spent some time on a line with Byfuglien and says he’s tailor made for the puck possession game Maurice and so many NHL coaches desire.
"You can’t take the puck from him," said Jokinen. "He’s so strong and he has a long reach. Once he has the puck he can move around with it until a play opens up and then he can make the pass. He’s quite creative. There’s a real mix of power and finesse."
Maurice doesn’t see returning Byfuglien to defence.
"He’s just too valuable up front. It’s not a case of whether Buff can play D, he can. He’s just been too important a player for us up front. There seems to be some chemistry with Blake Wheeler. We’ve had different centreman go in there over time, but the two of them have become hard to handle in the offensive zone. We’re far enough along in this test to see if we like it and he’s become a very good forward for us."
Finally, Maurice says Byfuglien is having a lot of fun playing on the wing and that’s a big positive.
"There are handful of guys whose best part of the day is game night. Some are intense and wind themselves up," said Maurice. "He’s having fun just before a game because this is something he enjoys. He talks on the bench. We have a quiet group, so it’s a good thing."
Throw all the numbers around you want. But the eyeball test needs to be considered as well. The organization saw fit to make a change. The results have been positive for the player and the team. Something there hasn’t been enough of in Winnipeg since the Jets returned.
It’s time to continue moving forward. For both Buff and the Jets.
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