April 19, 2019

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Opinion

Critics a tad rough on Buff despite a season of mostly right stuff

Dustin Byfuglien definitely deserves praise for his overall impact on the team this season. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press files)</p>

Dustin Byfuglien definitely deserves praise for his overall impact on the team this season. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/3/2018 (399 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In past seasons it was often stated that Dustin Byfuglien was the straw that stirred the Winnipeg Jets drink — a central figure in both good and bad times.

This season has been a bit different, with Connor Hellebuyck and Blake Wheeler leading the way from the start. The big defenceman has adjusted his style of play to fit in with a group that’s proven, when healthy, to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

While we know he’s still a huge factor in the dressing room, we have also seen his play significantly evolve this year — mostly in a positive way.

Oddly, that’s not enough for a number of naysayers, who seem to pop up in force every time he’s involved in an event that goes against the Jets.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/3/2018 (399 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In past seasons it was often stated that Dustin Byfuglien was the straw that stirred the Winnipeg Jets drink — a central figure in both good and bad times.

This season has been a bit different, with Connor Hellebuyck and Blake Wheeler leading the way from the start. The big defenceman has adjusted his style of play to fit in with a group that’s proven, when healthy, to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

While we know he’s still a huge factor in the dressing room, we have also seen his play significantly evolve this year — mostly in a positive way.

Oddly, that’s not enough for a number of naysayers, who seem to pop up in force every time he’s involved in an event that goes against the Jets.

We don’t have to look far too back see that these fans have been waiting to strike at him — they needed patience because Byfuglien has been excellent for quite a while.

But then overtime happened Monday in the Jets' 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, in which Byfuglien pinched into the offensive zone, looking to grab a puck ahead of Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Capitals' centre won the game on a breakaway after tapping it by Byfuglien, and the finger was pointed at him by many.

I initially thought it was a bad pinch as well, but after looking at it in slow motion I changed my tune.

After the Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little two-on-one was broken up, the puck headed to the boards. Wheeler was higher (closer to the Jets net) than Kuznetsov and went into cruise control. It sure looked like Byfuglien glanced quickly at that situation and decided he could go for it, trusting his captain.

Problem was, Wheeler was semi-angled at the boards, and instead of thinking Byfuglien would go for it and might not retrieve it, decided to stay his course a bit longer, gambling that his defenceman would win this. That was enough to leave him no chance at catching Kuznetsov after he won the battle on the boards.

I’m not a Byfuglien apologist, but I understand his thinking. If that were me, I’d be mad at both myself and Wheeler.

I’m only suggesting that sometimes people judge the play wrongly at first look, and jump at the easy target, the highest-paid player on the team.

Since the start of this season, Byfuglien has been asked to play better defence, which he has, overall.

I wouldn’t say he’s a lot better in his own zone, as he’s far from perfect, but a lot of his success has to do with being in position and not being "Rogue Buff." It makes it a lot easier for his teammates to know where he’s at — not constantly worrying about how they need to cover for him.

It isn’t easy to alter your game to this extent. After joining the Jets for that 1979 Avco Cup run I was asked to change from being more of an offensive defenceman with the green light to jump into the rush whenever I saw an opportunity.

Going from that to being a guy who was asked to be more defensive-minded and step up my physical game was a big challenge.

I not only had to learn to harness my instinct to take off with the puck, it also forced me to look at plays developing in front of me differently.

As highly as I think of Byfuglien’s play this season, there are areas that involve him where the Jets could likely improve themselves. While he played the large majority of overtime in Washington, I believe the Jets are better served by both Josh Morrissey and a healthy Jacob Trouba going over the boards before him in three-on-three hockey.

He just doesn’t have the quickness those two do — the big guy takes a little more time to get rolling.

The team obviously has more problems than this during gimmick-time though, both in tactical and player choices. We can be thankful that ends soon.

While I’ve thought for a while that Josh Morrissey would be a better power-play quarterback, the first unit runs through Wheeler, so they need a right shot for the one-timer threat from the point. Trouba will be a good option here if this group starts to falter.

However, no Jets player puts fear into an opponent like Byfuglien can, whether they’ve seen one of his devastating hits live or on television. Opponents always know where he is, and proceed in a more cautious manner.

He’s a big reason I confidently believe that the Jets have plenty of team toughness.

His excellence at trapping an errant puck at the opposing blue-line or picking a pass off in the neutral zone is due to his terrific ability to read the play. These are so common with him I think some people vastly underrate how important they are.

His strong play in Jacob Trouba’s absence has been welcomed by a team struggling with many injuries.

With 38 points in 58 games (a 53 point pace over 82 contests), his numbers are similar to past seasons, although goals are down.

As a leader in the dressing room, he’s taken a tough challenge in altering his style of play and owned it.

Byfuglien might, or might not be the Jets' big dog nowadays, but he definitely deserves praise for his overall impact on the team this season.

Chosen ninth overall by the NHL's St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA's Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.

Twitter: @NHL_Campbell

 

Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell
Columnist

Scott was a member of Winnipeg Jets 1.0 for a couple of seasons and also played for the WHA Jets team that won the last Avco Cup in 1978-79.

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