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Blaming Byfuglien

Erratic blue-liner drawing fans' ire, but coach sure he'll find his groove

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BUFFALO, NY -- He has become an easy target. A big, 6-5, 260-plus-pound target with the proverbial bull's-eye in bright red on his back.

 

But, just for the record, there a few things that need to be clarified:

-- Dustin Byfuglien is NOT responsible for the ongoing financial crisis in Greece;

-- Dustin Byfuglien should in no way be linked to Iran's apparent acquisition of nuclear weapons technology;

-- And if traffic was lousy this morning, the garbage collection crew missed your house in the weekly pickup, or your kid came home with an F in algebra, then we can pretty much assure you that the guy wearing No. 33 and occasionally playing defence for the Winnipeg Jets had absolutely nothing to do with it.

But go ahead and blame him, if you wish, because right about now the big man has become such a lightning rod for criticism in Jets Nation he is instantly cursed as the culprit for anything and everything hockey-related that goes wrong. Or anything and everything not hockey-related, for that matter.

And, yes, we're not going to run away from the subject: we've been doing our fair share of finger-pointing in this space as well after watching his ill-timed forays into the offensive zone or his occasionally atrocious defensive decisions repeatedly result in the red light flashing behind Ondrej Pavelec.

But it's here -- amid the clamouring for him to be moved back to wing, benched outright or even traded -- where a little patience is in order.

At least, that's how head coach Claude Noel was explaining things on Monday after an optional skate at the First Niagara Center.

"He plays a different game," said the Jets' boss. "His mentality is different. That doesn't make him bad, it doesn't make it that he doesn't care. I don't see those things. It's just the way he plays. He's an attack defenceman, he's not a receive defenceman. There lies what we're trying to change a little bit and that doesn't happen overnight. I mean (Sergei) Zubov, (Marek) Zidlicky... these guys who are different-breed defencemen, it takes time to shape them a bit."

And so while it must drive him absolutely bonkers sometimes, Noel and his staff -- which includes Charlie Huddy, the prototypical stay-at-home defenceman back in the day -- see Byfuglien as a work in progress. And right now progress is slow.

Painfully slow.

Byfuglien, FYI, isn't big on doing interviews or diving into a discussion on this topic. That's his prerogative. That means his defence in this debate is left to be handled by Noel & Co. And it seems that in many ways Jets management sees Byfuglien as a bit of a struggling artist; a guy who has painted some fine work -- he had 16 goals in the first 42 games last year in Atlanta after being moved permanently from forward to the blue-line -- but has just five goals in the last 53 contests.

And as for his defensive play, well, right now it's more liable than reliable.

"I know he's been criticized and I understand the criticism to a degree. But you don't change your game overnight," Noel said. "You've got to be careful. I've done this before as a young coach, tried to shape a guy to be more defensive and then you completely lose a guy that does some things well. He's a guy that can really help you. I've seen him play the high-risk game where his reads are really good. But this is what happens when you try to change people -- you get caught in the middle and then the reads aren't as free-spirited as they once were.

"That's what you see and people are coming down hard on him. I think it's a little bit unfair right now. You have to look the big picture here."

And the big picture is this: No matter how loudly fans call for the move, Dustin Byfuglien will not be shifted back to forward. Period. The coaches love how he is working and how he is open to changing his game. As a result, they'll keep hammering away on this work in progress because they are still enamoured with the potential in his high-risk/high-reward skill set.

In the meantime, the waiting for that transformation to be completed -- to see Byfuglien morph into a low-risk/high-reward defenceman -- is a bit like swallowing antibiotics and holding on until the medication takes effect.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2011 D1

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