Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Moving Buff up front just as good as a trade

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In a last-ditch effort to save his job, Claude Noel made a switch that may have set up Paul Maurice for success.

Actually, moving Dustin Byfuglien from defence to forward was in some ways a trade, swapping a troublesome but gifted top-pairing defenceman for a power forward with soft hands and the versatility to man the point on the power play. The Jets, to this point, have been better for the change.

Has the move stressed the blue-line? Certainly. But having Byfuglien rejuvenated and contributing has been worth that price.

Gone are the giveaways and soft defensive-zone work. Also gone are the superior puck mover and minutes-eater.

In that player's place is a dangerous forward able to create hysteria among opposition goalies and defencemen with both physical play and deft hands.

"There's a component to every player that coaches have nothing to do with and that's the skill set they have and the things they do intuitively on the ice," said Maurice, who replaced Noel as Jets head coach a game into the Byfuglien experiment.

"I've seen a lot of that. A really high skill set. (Byfuglien) understands the game very well, positionally and where he's supposed to be, and a willingness to adhere to what we're trying to do. He's picked up where we've asked him to be and gotten to those points. He's worked at a high level."

Byfuglien having an impact on games is nothing new. There were nights during his time as a blue-liner when he controlled and dominated games. Others, he was a disaster, hurting his team as much as helping it.

The experiment is still in the early stages, but so far the results have been positive. The Jets are 3-1 since Byfuglien moved up front and he's collected one goal and three assists and is an even player on the plus/minus scale. Far and away the Jets leader in ice-time and averaging north of 25 minutes when employed on the blue-line, Byfuglien is playing closer to 20 minutes per night as a right-winger, with a high of 22:04.

Maurice has used Byfuglien on the point on the power play and has turned to him when things get thin on the back end.

"You can throw him back (to the blue-line) on the power play, you can throw him back on 4-on-4," said Maurice. "Two D were in the penalty box late in the game (vs. Edmonton), and you can throw a guy from your fourth line back and you're holding your breath. But with (Byfuglien) you have a guy with great experience. When he has the puck on his stick, that's where we want it."

Maurice was asked if there were any drawbacks to having Byfuglien skate as a forward and not as a defenceman.

"You lose that skill set and some of that creativity and the big minutes. That last game, (Jacob) Trouba played 23 minutes, which has to be close to a high for him. Our back end is sorted in terms of what we're asking them to do in terms of roles. Dustin is a certain class of defenceman and you're going to put him in certain role situations," said Maurice. "We do lose some minutes. So we're asking some other defenceman to play a little more."

Trouba is one of those players, and as good as he has been, it's dangerous to put too much of a load on a 19-year-old rookie playing the hardest position in the NHL.

The player Jets management is really hoping will step up is Zach Bogosian. The sixth-year pro has struggled this season, but with Byfuglien up front and Grant Clitsome done for the season, there are no alternatives.

Trouba will have to play more and so will Bogosian. They will also have to play against top-end competition. And how they handle the better players on teams like the upcoming Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks will determine a lot about the remainder of the Jets season and how GM Kevin Cheveldayoff proceeds at the trade deadline and this summer.

Just two weeks ago, I advocated for change where Byfuglien was concerned. Trade him and limit his minutes until a deal could be arranged, went my rant. Here's what Byfuglien had to say at that time about his game.

"Not consistent. Not playing my top. Something I have to figure out myself," said Byfuglien. "Slow down and play the game the way I should be. Keep it simple. I might be playing a little too fast for myself right now. Tighten it up."

My take on Byfuglien is well known, and with the position change, out of date. New coach, new perspective. Maurice says he now has a happy and important player in Byfuglien.

"What I like most, or less, about every player is how much fun they have playing the game. (Byfuglien) really looks like he's enjoying the game and that's infectious. When you can get a guy with those gifts that is engaged on the ice, it makes running the bench great," said Maurice.

Can a position switch of one player make all the difference for the Jets? We'll see.

Eating crow once in a while is part of this gig. And if Buff the forward makes the Jets go, then pass the salt.

As most of my Twitter snipers are happy to report, I'm pretty good with a knife and fork.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2014 ??65535

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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
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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