Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A bit of polish and Buff could shine

Fitness still an issue for big defenceman

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Dustin BYFUGLIEN can be better and he must be if the Winnipeg Jets are going to proceed as a playoff team and perhaps beyond.

He looks tired right now. That's not an adjective a hockey player wants attached to his game. It doesn't offer much promise for success.

Byfuglien, who has six goals and 15 assists through 31 games, remains an unsolved enigma. The Jets have worked with him to improve his off-season conditioning so he can be consistently dominant.

It hasn't happened and now when they need him most, he appears out of juice and unable to summon his powers.

The margin of error for the Jets is too thin for their best players to disappear such as Byfuglien has of late as he's collected three points and been a minus-four over his last six games.

Saturday the big blue-liner was OK and likely the best he's been after a number of sub-par games. But OK isn't enough where Byfuglien and the Jets are concerned.

Jets coach Claude Noel paused and considered his answer when asked to assess Byfuglien's play over the last five or six games.

"Well, he's been... I'll just say up and down," replied Noel, leaving much open to interpretation.

Noel has stated Byfuglien can be an elite defender and it must be frustrating to have him floating along in the pack.

If Byfuglien wanted to separate himself from the rest and join names like Chara and Weber he could. They have nothing on him in raw ability.

But he's not there and it's beginning to look like he never will be.

Byfuglien can and has been dominant. He's almost always the fastest and most powerful of the big men on the ice. His cocktail of speed and size makes him different than 99 per cent of the NHL. There have been nights when he takes your breath away combining the power of a souped-up Hemi with the finesse of a virtuoso musician. Byfuglien has soft hands. PGA golfer soft.

But his day-in and day-out play does not distinguish him as one of the NHL's best. He lacks consistency and as the Jets head down the stretch and play their most meaningful games of the season he's been found lacking.

Following Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes a request to speak to Byfuglien was made but not filled.

He doesn't like to speak to the media. I don't know Byfuglien. Not at all. Have never had a conversation with him other than in a scrum. I'm told he's competitive and has a great sense of humour. I do know this, his teammates love him.

That's usually an indicator for what a player brings to a team. Teammates most often aren't willing to allow a player to drag them down. Byfuglien can't be accused of that but by holding himself back, he holds the Jets back.

Can it be argued that if he were in elite condition he wouldn't be more effective? No it cannot.

Byfuglien plays hard minutes. When he takes the puck up ice and works down low in the offensive zone, he often is forced to hold defenders off to protect the puck while waiting for an opening.

When a turnover results, the energy expended to get back in the play is crushing. It leaves Byfuglien spent.

One might argue Noel should manage his minutes better and hold him off the ice a little more but that would only mean increasing the minutes of lesser players.

A tired Byfuglien is still better than most of his teammates. Limiting his ice would be counterproductive when the alternatives are considered.

Noel will have to continue to lean on Byfuglien. Maybe this is just a funk and he'll bounce back. But if he's out of energy and can't rebound, the Jets are at a loss. A major loss. Right when they need some wins.

Twitter @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2013 B3

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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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