Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Byfuglien back after 16 games on injury list

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Hockey players don't typically do the warm-and-fuzzy, hug-it-out thing.

After all, it's not in the DNA of guys who are trained to be cold-hearted assassins on the ice to get all teary-eyed or emotional about teammates and their absences from the active roster. Candidates for a session on the shrink's couch or with Dr. Phil, they are not.

So, for the record, Dustin Byfuglien wasn't exactly swarmed by the Winnipeg Jets when his return to the lineup became all-but official -- "game-time decision" is the party line right now -- after practice Wednesday.

All that said, his impact on the Jets -- both in terms of what he brings to a game and the clubhouse -- was noticeable during his absence and, as well, upon his return.

Simply put: they may hide it well, but the organization is thrilled to have No. 33 back.

"He's an all-star," said veteran defenceman Randy Jones. "He's a guy we rely on quite heavily, but he's also just a good team guy to be around. He brings a lot.

"He's a laid-back guy who can joke around, but when it's time to get serious, he gets serious. It's a long season and you've got to be relaxed as you go through the ups and downs and have some fun. And he brings that. We need that."

The Jets managed to tread water a bit during Byfuglien's absence due to a knee injury, going 7-8-1 since he pulled up lame before a game in Colorado on Dec. 27. But it's also no coincidence that while the club was trending upward with him in the lineup, it has faded without his offensive punch and physical presence.

The concern now is what to expect from a guy who will be wearing a brace and has missed so much action. As Byfuglien himself suggested after practice, the sweat dripping off his face, "It's like we're starting from scratch and starting a new season."

Jets head coach Claude Noel vowed to manage Byfuglien's minutes over a stretch that will have the team playing three games in four nights. But if the big man has it going, the Jets could certainly use his skill set.

"We have to be intelligent about how things go with Buff," Noel said. "He hasn't practised much, he hasn't played in four-five weeks with us. The fear that I have is does your team mentality change? Sometimes you think you've added a guy or two and you let up. I don't think we're there, I don't think we're at that stage.

"He's a really smart defenceman and he can bring a lot of things, offensively, defensively... he's a strong, powerful man."

Byfuglien, for his part, is just itching to get back at it. Being away from the game -- and isolated from his teammates -- can be a shock to the system. Again, though, you won't get him to openly admit that.

"That's one of the biggest things, not being around the team. But there's times when it's nice to get away from them because you don't like them all the time, you know?," Byfuglien said with a huge grin. "(Andrew) Ladd gets on my nerves a lot. It's nice to get away from some of these goofballs.

"It feels like it's been a long time. It gets a little boring sitting at home and watching the games knowing that should be out there and you can't be.

"I'm ready. I'm sick of sitting out and watching. It's not the funnest thing to be doing."

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2012 D1

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