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A wing and a prayer

Moving Buff to forward has a feel of desperation

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CLAUDE Noel isn’t the first coach in the long and storied history of the National Hockey League to experiment with lines in an attempt to spark his flatlining team to life.

But this latest move — shifting Dustin Byfuglien from defence to forward — does have a certain desperate, madscientist feel to it.

Yes, the only thing missing from his daily session with the media on Friday was the Jets’ coach in a white lab coat, rubbing his hands together and then exiting with a mad-scientist "Muah-haha­ha!" cackle.

"I don’t know if it’s desperate," began Noel.

"You try to find ways to win. Dustin played last year a little bit up front and was pretty hard to handle in some episodes of the game. He can be a guy that can have an impact on the game and that’s what we’re looking for.

"We’re trying to move things around a little bit to get some different things happen as part of the solution."

Friday’s line combos — with Evander Kane absent and likely unavailable for today’s home date with the Columbus Blue Jackets because of what is being called a hand injury — looked like this: -Byfuglien on right wing with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd; -Blake Wheeler moved to the right side of Olli Jokinen, with Devin Setoguchi shifting to left wing; -Eric O’Dell moving from centering the fourth line to the left side alongside Mark Scheifele and Michael Frolik; -James Wright switching from wing to centre between Eric Tangradi and Chris Thorburn; -And with Byfuglien out of the defensive rotation, the pairings featured Zach Bogosian with Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart with Jacob Troubla and Keaton Ellerby working with Adam Pardy, while Zach Redmond was recalled from St. John’s.

Asked what he hoped to accomplish with mov­ing Byfuglien up front — to the No. 1 line, no less — Noel didn’t tap-dance: "Production," he said. "What I’m hoping to accomplish, not only with that line or with each line, is positive production and the hope we can move forward.

"But let’s make sure we’re clear here: If we’re going to move in any direction we’ve got to get our work boots on. That’s the first thing. I don’t care where you’re playing. We’ve got to win battles, we’ve got to get to the hard areas and we’ve got to win in the hard areas. You can juggle all you want."

The Jets managed just 14 shots on goal in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Tampa, but the lack of offensive production isn’t the real issue with the Jets of late.

Since shutting out the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 on New Year’s Eve, the Jets have surrendered 18 goals in the four-game skid.

So, there may be a couple of other storylines, beside the "spark" angle, percolating here: 1. Byfuglien, as gifted as he is offensively, does gobble up a lot of minutes defensively and in Tuesday’s loss to Tampa failed to tie up Martin St. Louis in front of the Jet net for what was the game-winning goal.

 

2. Moving the big man up front also showcases his versatility, fuelling the rumours the Jets are attempting to move him before the trade deadline.

What the Jets get by moving him up front is a size-large force with the ability to lug the puck and get to the hard areas in front of the net. The organization has tinkered with the Byfuglienas- a-forward idea before, most recently last April over a stretch of four periods against the New York Islanders and Montreal.

Switching him up front also eliminates the high-risk/high-reward element to his game as a defenceman. An example: During the four-game road trip the Jets scored 11 goals, of which Byfuglien was on the ice for six. But of the 18 goals against, he was on the ice for 11.

Still, ask any goaltender what it’s like having a human eclipse like Byfuglien blocking his view.

"You can’t handle him, especially in front of the net," said Ladd. "He’s just the immovable object. That creates a lot offensively, a lot of room for his linemates. That’s one of the good things for me and Litts (Little) if we end up playing together."

"He’s the kind of guy that can play any position out there," Little said.

"He’s really offensively gifted and right now we need his spark. That was the main idea in moving him to forward.

We’re trying to find our chemistry and what’s going to work.

"He’s one of those guys that is really creative. He does things on the ice that a lot of guys don’t do and that," added Little with a grin, "can be good and bad."

 

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 C3

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