DUSTIN BYFUGLIEN'S fitness has been an issue for some time now in his pro career, but perhaps the lure of playing for his country can be the catalyst to a new and more fit Big Buff.
The Winnipeg Jets defenceman has caught the eye of USA Hockey. Now can he convince them he's more player than baggage for the trip to Russia?
USA head coach Dan Bylsma won't be interested in having a gasping Byfuglien stranded on the larger international ice surface to be used in the Olympics.
But a well-conditioned Byfuglien could be a surprise weapon for Team USA. And by extension, the Jets.
To this point in his career no amount of poking and prodding has convinced Byfuglien to take his conditioning to an elite level. Maybe American GM David Poile has provided the carrot he needs to get over the hump.
Byfuglien was among four Jets invited to Team USA's orientation camp this fall in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Also on the U.S. watch list are defencemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Bogosian and right-winger Blake Wheeler.
"I have to choose my words wisely. (Byfuglien) is a bit of a wild card. He's never participated in any USA Hockey tournaments. Our committee doesn't know him as well as some of the other guys and we want to get to know him a bit," said Poile. "He's a tremendous talent. The decision will come down to how he plays in October, November and December. We'll be watching him closely."
Poile and his selection committee also named Jets rookie Trouba to the list with a look to both the present and the future.
"We're trying to reward success. Trouba played in both the world junior and world championship this year. Whether he's going to make this team or not, he's going to be a big part of Team USA's future," said Poile. "I wanted, along with all the other guys on the committee, that component this year. For guys like Trouba, I want them to be around our core veterans. Whether it's for today or somewhere down the road, he's going to be a big part of things."
Bogosian will be in tough with a defensive group that could include the likes of Jack Johnson (Columbus), Ryan Suter (Minnesota), Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers), Justin Faulk (Carolina), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis), Keith Yandle (Phoenix) and Erik Johnson (Colorado).
"Zach's been at a couple of world championships and he's a young player that is starting to improve," said Poile. "He's talented, has size and the skating that we're really looking for in Sochi. We're going to have some changes on defence. Zach fits into a fairly big group of young guys fighting for a spot.
Wheeler could have the best chance of his teammates to crack the U.S. squad.
"An emerging young player with all the attributes we're looking for. Size and speed and very conditioned," said Poile. "We'll be watching a lot of Blake early in the season to see if he can swing into the mix to be a candidate for Sochi."
Team USA will hold its camp at the Washington Capitals practice facility in Virginia running Aug. 26-27.
Note: The Jets signed forward Eric O'Dell to a one-year, two-way contract worth $600,000 at the NHL level. The 23-year-old has 41 goals in 101 career AHL games.