Those rare but always entertaining chats with Dustin Byfuglien invariably become a fishing expedition of sorts as media folks in Winnipeg plot ways to get the most out of the big guy.
An eager broadcaster was the first to cast out a question during a Sunday morning scrum with the Winnipeg Jets defenceman, following a training camp session at the Iceplex. Wisely, and to the relief of all, he took a light-hearted approach to begin the inquisition by asking a fishing question that set the course for a snag-free session with the 12-year NHL veteran, an ardent outdoorsman.
"Probably a six-pound bass, large-mouth," Byfuglien said, referring to his most impressive catch of a busy off-season on his boat. "Down in Minneapolis… you gotta have a boat with a trolling motor and look for deep rocks."
The conversation then turned to bow hunting. Just a day before, Shawn Matthias admitted he and newcomer Matt Hendricks accompanied Byfuglien for a day of target practice.
"It was just like any first guy shooting a bow. A little shaky at first, but the more you shoot the better you get," Byfuglien said, describing Matthias’s prowess with a bow, before offering sage advice: "Just keep shooting."
Overall, the summer was a good one, but he’s glad to get back to work.
"It was another fast summer that flew by… now, just looking forward to getting this going again," said the 6-5 blue-liner, who’s still listed at 260 pounds in the Jets camp notes. Observers here, however, are unanimous in their belief the 32-year-old who hails from Roseau, Minn., looks his leanest since arriving in Winnipeg in 2011 with the rest of his transplanted Atlanta Thrashers teammates.
Byfuglien, who played 80 games during the 2016-17 season, finished with 52 points, four shy of his career high set during the ’13-14 season. Since breaking in with Chicago in 2005-06, he’s played 758 games split between the Blackhawks, Thrashers and Jets.
As a Hawk, he won a Stanley Cup with Winnipeg native Jonathan Toews in 2010.
Byfuglien was asked what it will take for the Jets to make the huge leap from a non-playoff squad to perennial league contender.
"We gotta believe in each other. We can’t worry about anybody but what’s in this locker room and who’s putting that jersey on," he said. "Believe in one another and go out on the ice and stick to the game plan that we have. Just go out there and do your job the way you’re supposed to do it and you should be all right.
"Everyone is that much older, wiser, a little bit more experienced. That’s all we can go on from right here. It’s just a couple days into training camp and we haven’t done nothing yet. There’s a lot of steps we’ve got to go forward to. We’ve just got to keep working."
He said proven veterans like goalie Steve Mason, winger Matt Hendricks and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov are welcome additions.
"It’s early, but from what I’ve seen so far it’s been good," Byfuglien said, offering his initial impression of the former Philadelphia Flyers netminder. "Good guy, glad he’s here. I don’t even know if I’ve gotten to shoot on him yet. But, hopefully, good things and we can talk about this later."
Constant communication with the new man in the crease will be critical for Winnipeg’s defensive corps, he said.
"It’s just practising, talking, knowing how he plays the puck, stops the puck, how they come off him. Just games, reps," Byfuglien said.
Head coach Paul Maurice has paired Byfuglien with young, 6-7, 231-pound Logan Stanley during the first two days of regular drills.
"He’s got (a) reach that I wish I had. For the most part, it’s the first time I’ve gotten to skate with him. We really haven’t done much to know how he does anything out there, really. You just talk to him, keep him happy," he said, on being a mentor. "Not getting mad and make sure he’s having fun out there, that’s all."
Byfuglien was overworked last season, leading all NHL players with an average of 27 minutes, 26 seconds of ice time per game.
With a healthy Tyler Myers and Toby Enström, and the continued development of Jacob Trouba as a top-pairing D-man, does trimming Byfuglien’s minutes make sense?
"I don’t know. It all depends on how everyone is going," he said. "If everyone is going, no one needs to play big minutes. Everyone can share it and go around. But we’ve got to wait to start playing."
Hendricks, another Minnesota-born player, is playing for the fifth team of his nine-year NHL career and has run up against Byfuglien in the corners too many times to count, he said.
The 36-year-old winger said players across the league are keenly aware of the hulking defenceman’s presence every shift he’s out there.
"He’s a physical force. The goal is to get the puck on your stick and off your stick as soon as you can, because if you get trapped in the corner with him, nine times out of 10 you’re not coming out with the puck," Hendricks said. "He’s a big man and he wins most of the physical altercations, that’s for sure."
He said it’s a welcome change to don the same jersey as Byfuglien for once.
"I’ve loved his game forever. He can get up and down the ice well and he’s very offensive. But, at the same time, he jumps out of nowhere and lays a hit that everyone from here to Edmonton is watching on TV. So, it’s a lot of the fun to be on this side of the puck with him," Hendricks said. "He’s a great personality in the room, he’s a lot of fun to talk to and I know how bad he wants to start winning and get back in the playoffs, and that’s what drives him right now."
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