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Pair Buff with Stuart

That would help harness the big guy's wild ways

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Yelling at him won't work, benching him is a waste and trading him is like quitting -- a last resort.

Still, the Winnipeg Jets must solve the riddle that is Dustin Byfuglien and get more -- much more -- from him.

To that end, maybe it's time to give Mark Stuart a crack at the task.

Stuart's work with Zach Bogosian has proven successful as the 21-year-old has found confidence and composure with his older blue-line partner playing mentor. Stuart may not bring the best skill set but his mental approach to the game is superior. He's focused, determined and unflinching in his desire to keep the puck out of his own net. Having a little bit of that rub off on Byfuglien wouldn't be a bad thing.

Jets coach Claude Noel isn't going to get his message across to Byfuglien via the traditional methods, but there are other ways to bring the best out of the 6-foot-5, 268-pound defender. Having Stuart, a player Byfuglien trusts and respects, talk to him on the ice, the bench and in the dressing room could have the desired impact.

Noel has talked about Byfuglien's game management and in particular his decision-making process on when to join the rush or elect to hang back. Having Stuart communicating with Byfuglien -- "Go Buff," or "Not now Buff," -- would help in the harnessing of the big man's game. Too often Byfuglien gets caught freelancing and the Jets pay the price. The coach can't control this from the bench, but it's been proven to work with a peer on the ice.

The duo of Sandis Ozolinsh and Adam Foote during their time together with the Colorado Avalanche comes to mind. Ozolinsh was always game to join the hunt but Foote kept him on a leash, not too tight, but always there and ready to tug.

Stuart thinks the game well enough to work with Byfuglien in this regard and appears ready for a larger leadership role.

Defence partners work on a trust basis and one never wants to let down his mate. Stuart's glare, quietly adminstered on the bench after a shift ending with the puck in the Jets net, would impact Byfuglien.

The unspoken message, "You might be secure in your career with that $4-million-plus-a-year ticket but I can't afford to look bad. And goals like that make me look bad. So get it together. For both of us and the team."

Byfuglien is a complex case, a huge talent, but now in his seventh NHL season there is still a decided lack of pro polish. Just last season there was a small Norris Trophy buzz for him in the early going, but now a feeling of angst pervades.

The Jets have preached patience with Byfuglien but their actions are beginning to speak. His ice time has been trimmed back and he rarely takes part in the penalty kill. Not the trademarks of a team's No. 1 defenceman.

It wouldn't matter if Byfuglien was a minor talent or a bit player, but he's so much more than that. And, despite his obvious flaws, he is beloved in the dressing room and by management.

Byfuglien could be the best player on the ice many nights but often is the cause of crisis.

It's not enough to just wait on the player and hope he comes around. Better to arm him with all available tools. Perhaps Stuart is the drill that can get through to Byfuglien.

It's a worth a try because the current efforts have Byfuglien and the team just stripping threads.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 C1

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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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