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This article was published 2/5/2018 (530 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Now you see him, now imagine you don’t.
The Winnipeg Jets without the productive, destructive phenomenon that is defenceman Dustin Byfuglien? That simply does not compute.
He’s the 6-5, 260-pound answer to the question, "What’s so special about the Jets?"
Long-time teammate Bryan Little snickered Wednesday afternoon when reminded the critics not so long ago wanted Byfuglien on a slow train to Florida or Edmonton or Philadelphia, anywhere that would take him and his unwillingness to improve his defensive game.
"There’s only one Dustin Byfuglien, and you want him on your team," said Little. "You can’t imagine what it would be like playing against him — there’s only one of him.
"You can’t really compare him to anyone out there."
The Jets have a skilled, hardworking captain in Blake Wheeler, one of the NHL’s top passers. They have an all-world centre in Mark Scheifele, star power in scorers such as Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, splendidly mobile defencemen in Josh Morrissey, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba and a Vezina Trophy-worthy goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck.
A stacked hand, to be sure.
But the guy with 33 on his back is the trump card.
"He’s got that ability to take games over. When he’s feeling it, he’s one of those guys who can be unstoppable out there," Little said. "Not just scoring big goals but making big hits. You saw it (Tuesday) night, he was a force out there.
"I think Buff is the strongest person in the league — hands down."
Byfuglien scored a pair of goals against the Predators in an electrifying 7-4 victory in Game 3, giving the Jets a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series. He also helped set up Wheeler’s game-winner that snapped a 4-4 tie with less than five minutes left in regulation.
In eight post-season games, including a five-game, first-round series with the Minnesota Wild, he has three goals, seven assists and is a plus-7, while averaging nearly 28 minutes of ice time.
His presence hasn’t been noticeable simply on the scoresheet. He’s administered some bone-crushing body-checks against the Preds and in the previous series against the Wild. His hit count is at 35, fourth-most in the playoffs.
"He just has that presence out there that he’s going to do something, whether it’s throw a big hit, or he had a couple of big goals for us last night. Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous," said Little.
Ask Wild forwards Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu how it felt getting clobbered by Winnipeg seemingly unstoppable force?
Ask Nashville forward Viktor Arvidsson why he bailed out Tuesday instead of following through on a rush down the right wall with Byfuglien zeroed in like a heat-seeking missile.
"He’s a very big man, a lot of strength to him. You can tell when he’s on the ice, guys on the other team, you can see, they’re aware," Jets defenceman Tyler Myers said. "They know when he’s coming down on them. He’s a big force for us."
He’s absolutely adored by the guys in the locker room.
'He just has that presence out there that he's going to do something, whether it's throw a big hit, or he had a couple of big goals for us last night. Any time he's on the ice, it's dangerous' – Bryan Little
"He’s a character in the room and he brings it out on the ice. Certainly, when he throws his body around or when he dances after a goal, it gets the guys going a little bit. It almost relaxes the room a little bit. We enjoy seeing it, for sure," Myers added.
A fluid skater, offensively talented, loaded with brute strength, with a deep love for the game and unwavering loyalty to his coaches and teammates, he’s demonstrated all the positive Big Buff do’s during the Stanley Cup playoffs and none of the don’ts that made him a lightning rod in his first six season in Winnipeg.
He was the subject of some high praise from the Predators bench boss Wednesday afternoon at Bell MTS Place.
"He brings a lot to the table. Just his size, his physicality for one. The way he can move is another," said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. "(A) real good defenceman who can bring a lot of offence to the table."
Byfuglien’s performance been so dominant that he’s turning heads outside of Winnipeg.
One Toronto scribe asked Maurice post game Tuesday, "When Byfuglien gets rolling like that, is it his world and the rest of us are just living in it?"
The 33-year-old Roseau, Minn., product is performing like the superstar that many in and around the game of hockey believe he always could be, or was sporadically, since emerging from the Western Hockey League as a young blue-liner with size and skill but a whole lot of tarnish on his game.
Deep into his 11th NHL campaign, Byfuglien’s making just his fourth appearance in the post season. The second time he was in, he won a championship (2009-10) in Chicago, wreaking havoc around the net and popping in 11 post-season goals — including five game-winners — as a monolithic forward for the Blackhawks.
He’d return to the comfort of the blue line with the Atlanta Thrashers a year later scoring 20 times on a below-average team. Then, he’d arrive in Winnipeg in May 2011 with Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Toby Enstrom et al.
He’s been an enigmatic character since, to say the least. Undoubtedly, one of the most beloved players of any era — World Hockey Association, Jets 1.0 or the current incarnation — to don a Winnipeg jersey, he’s also had a battery of detractors.
Lazy, out of shape, disengaged, poor decision-maker, reckless. Pick a descriptor. He was slapped with a long list of similarly critical labels during his tenure here.
Back in 2015 and early ‘16, the Twitter world and late-night radio callers blasted the Jets for even considering re-signing him to a new contract, arguing the Jets would be far better off without the then 30-year-old rear-guard.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had other ideas, finalizing a deal in February 2016 — mere weeks from the trade deadline where Byfuglien, if available, would have been a hot trade possibility — to pay him US$38 million over five years.
That’s a US$7.6-million annual average salary, which made him Winnipeg’s priciest player and one of the highest-paid defencemen in the entire league.
Byfuglien produced 52 points during the 2016-17 season but continued to take knocks for a loose defensive style and a propensity for leading the charge, often with disastrous results.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice maintains he’s a completely different player in Winnipeg’s best-ever season, mostly because the hulking blue-liner no longer feels compelled to be a game-changer.
And yet, Byfuglien’s exactly that, and more than ever before — despite enduring a three-month stretch to start the ‘17-18 season without a goal. (He finished with eight goals and 45 points in 69 games).
"He spent the first four months of this year being right about when he was (rushing) and when he wasn’t." Maurice said. "He wasn’t scoring an awful lot so he was apparently taking some heat. We thought he was going great but he was taking some heat. And then the puck started to go for him. But he’s been a different style defenceman now, for me, for the whole year — right from Day 1."
Wheeler gets the last word on Byfuglien, one of the team’s alternate captains.
"He’s the great equalizer. There’s nobody like him. Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play," he said, following Tuesday’s triumph.
"That’s the type of player he is and from Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 1:08 AM CDT: fixes photo cutlines