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This article was published 30/3/2018 (973 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CHICAGO — It’s the simple refrain heard time and again when a teammate, past or present, provides his take on the Winnipeg Jets’ big man, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
"Buff’s just Buff."
Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, a couple of guys from the old neighbourhood, both mentioned it Thursday, while a player new to the Jets organization, Paul Stastny, echoed their words.
Not terribly illuminating on the surface, the sentiments speak volumes. Byfuglien is, without question, one of the NHL’s truly unique forces of nature. He’s one of a kind, and those within the inner circle appreciate and value everything about him.
"He was one of those guys I got really close with my first couple of years (in the league), just a really fun guy to hang out with, loves life, always in a good mood, always happy," Kane, a sensational right-winger with the Chicago Blackhawks, said on Thursday afternoon.
Byfuglien and Kane found regular duty with Chicago the same season (2007-08), winning a Stanley Cup alongside Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marián Hossa and ex-Jets captain Andrew Ladd two seasons later.
"Just the way he kind of flip-flopped from defence to forward and how good he was in that 2010 (final) series (against the Philadelphia Flyers). Now, you watch him on defence and he’s just a presence out there, so I’m happy for him, happy he’s going to the playoffs this year," Kane said.
"He’s got a good team and he’s a great man, and he’s always fun to see and joke around with. You see him on the ice during a game and he’s always joking around, messing around, and it makes it fun out there."
Byfuglien isn’t particularly drawn to the spotlight. He’s not a go-to guy for the local media, his availability is pretty rare and he keeps his comments brief. His playful side comes out behind the closed doors of the locker room or on the ice.
He’s always to blame for pulling pranks and doesn’t seem to mind the label.
"I remember I used to put my gloves on the dryer before the games, and I’d come in and check on them and they’d be thrown down on the ground. It was Buff." Kane said. "He would wrestle around with guys in the locker room, things like that.
"I remember we were in Florida one time, putting our change gear on to get ready for practice... and all our stuff was all cut up, had big holes in it, stuff like that. You knew it was him. It couldn’t be anyone else, it was always Buff."
Blithe and mischievous, he’s also one menacing dude.
At 6-5, 260 pounds, with exceptional skating skills and a howitzer of a shot, there really is no other specimen like Byfuglien in the NHL.
"The first time I really met him — my first camp — I was a little scared. (He’s) not a guy you want to play against," Winnipeg winger Nikolaj Ehlers said. "He works hard every single practice, every single game. He hates losing. He’s a great defenceman and, offensively, he’s great, too.
"He’s a great character. Everybody on the team loves him."
Byfuglien has always possessed the ability to be a game-changer, by either an end-to-end rush, a clapper from the point or a monstrous hit on an opposing player.
But his penchant for being front and centre in pivotal moments has, historically, also included some irresponsible decision-making, and his work in the defensive zone remains the most controversial area of the Minnesota native’s game.
Case in point: his defence partner in Chicago, Joe Morrow, unloaded a shot that missed the net, rattled around the boards and spurted toward the other point. Pinching in, Byfuglien neither trapped the puck nor caught a piece of the streaking Kane, who moved down the wall, cut in on Eric Comrie and beat the young goalie through the five-hole just 3:44 into the opening period.
Chicago went up 2-0 later in the period — Morrow flubbed a pass from Byfuglien and the puck bounced into the slot, leading to a Brandon Saad tally — and then, the hosts coasted along to a 6-2 triumph.
That said, Byfuglien’s defensive play is much-improved this season, part of the team’s overall commitment to limiting opponents’ scoring chances.
More than at any other time since the Jets arrived in 2011, he’s choosing the safe route rather than rolling the dice on risky rushes up the ice. His gap is far more controlled and his reads in the D-zone are producing better results.
The 33-year-old blue-liner has gulped head coach Paul Maurice’s Kool-Aid and seems content with the results.
"Yeah, I’m not as risky," Byfuglien said. "But the way we play, our team system, kind of falls into play with it. So, a pinch a couple of years ago maybe wouldn’t have had a high guy to fill in for me.
"My game’s been good. You always feel you can do better, but I’ve been happy with my play."
While he didn’t fire his first goal this season until Jan. 5, he’s up to six now and has added 35 assists. Overall, his production is down slightly, but he’s a plus-13 and is sparking conversation about his dependable play rather than his blunders.
"As a defenceman, he is absolutely playing the best hockey of his career. What he did was really a conscious effort to not feel like he had to drive the game all the time and to be more patient in his game. He still does, but he’s picking the right spots," Maurice said.
With the pressure of playoffs looming and a roster that lacks post-season experience, the benefit of having a competitor such as Byfuglien as someone who’s been there and done that can’t be understated, Maurice said.
"He’s not casual. But what makes him different is he has big smile on his face and really enjoys the most pressure-filled moments. So, when he’s walking out onto the ice and the crowd’s going, he’s got a big smile on his face," Maurice said.
"You’ve seen him joke around with a player or a referee at an intense time in the game, and the puck drops and he’s wired and he’s on. He likes the experience."
Stastny, acquired in late February at the trade deadline, said Byfuglien adds a presence, both behind the scenes and on the ice, that a team still getting comfortable with its own success requires.
"I think Buff’s just Buff. It’s kind of an old-school presence, an easy-going attitude that wants to win but keeps it light, because sometimes I think we take things too serious," Stastny said. "We don’t realize how fun it is, how lucky we are to be in this position."
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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).