Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Verdict is in: Jets, fans love Big Buff

But he'd be worthy of more love if he got fit and became an elite D-man

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Before we even met him he was in trouble. Busted for boating while intoxicated and reportedly bloated beyond playing condition. Dustin Byfuglien did not make the best impression on fans of the new Winnipeg Jets.

Since then, Byfuglien, whose lawyer will appear at a settlement conference on Thursday to either reach an agreement or set a trial date, has ingrained himself in the Jets organization and with Winnipeg hockey fans.

The charges against Byfuglien are based on his refusal to give a urine sample after passing a breathalyzer test when stopped on his boat last summer at Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka.

Byfuglien has entered a not guilty plea.

Every player is different and they all come with their own set of luggage. Byfuglien's may be a little heavier and difficult to lug, but once it is opened the contents are revealed to be invaluable.

Is Byfuglien worth the trouble? As both a player and a person the answer has been a resounding yes.

After a rocky first few games he settled into his game and was named an NHL All-Star. Then a knee injury knocked him out of the lineup and sent the Jets into a tailspin. The Jets have posted a 6-9 record with Byfuglien out of the lineup and have missed his ability to kick-start the offence from the back end. He can make the first pass or rush the puck and is integral to solving Winnipeg's scoring woes that, over the last 12 games, have seen the club shut out three times and held to one goal on three other nights. Byfgulien makes the Jets tick and without him the second hand has just about stopped.

Coach Claude Noel quietly refers to Byfuglien as a foundation of the team and his teammates love him.

What happens Thursday is important to Byfuglien and the Jets, but regardless of the outcome, they're approaching closure on the subject.

Speed, size, power and vision combine to give Byfuglien a skill set like no one else in the NHL. Under the steady hand of assistant coach Charlie Huddy he's added discipline to his game and become more balanced. There's no question he's an all-star, but Byfuglien could be elite. One of the game's top five defencemen -- mentioned in the same breath as Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara. Not, however, unless he discovers a way to reach a higher level of fitness.

Elite doesn't happen for players in so-so shape. Byfuglien can't be too gassed to get back in the play after a rush and he can't use game action as his conditioning regime. He needs to commit to an off-ice program that takes his game to that next level.

It's critical because Byfuglien is such a huge piece of the Jets' puzzle. They can improve a bit around Byfuglien, but a far more likely scenario sees him going to the next level and dragging the rest of the club along with him.

Maturation is a funny thing. Some of us do it in our teens while others don't figure out until their 30s and then there are those that never get it right.

Byfuglien recently became a father and this could help the maturation process.

The Jets stuck by him when his legal issues arose and so far they've been rewarded for that faith. But once this ordeal is over, Byfuglien can take it one step further and get fit. He'll benefit and so will the Jets.

One might argue that's the least he owes his team and his fans.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2012 D1

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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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