October 18, 2017

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When he's good, Byfuglien makes the Jets better

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>There are two distinctly different opinions about defenceman Dustin Byfuglien among Winnipeg Jets fans.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

There are two distinctly different opinions about defenceman Dustin Byfuglien among Winnipeg Jets fans.

The Winnipeg Jets may have saved their nation of fans from collapsing on the floor in tears when they beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-2 Monday night.

That reaction would have been understandable after the team was smoked in a season-opening 7-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs and then managed to be even worse in a 6-3 beatdown at the hands of the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

It wasn’t the losses; it was how the Jets played that left stomachs churning. A number of the same problems of years past cropped up again.

Pathetic coverage of the opposition resulted in some easy goals against. By the end of the Calgary game I was split on whether the players had a low defensive IQ or if it was the systems they were using that were to blame.

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The Winnipeg Jets may have saved their nation of fans from collapsing on the floor in tears when they beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-2 Monday night.

That reaction would have been understandable after the team was smoked in a season-opening 7-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs and then managed to be even worse in a 6-3 beatdown at the hands of the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

It wasn’t the losses; it was how the Jets played that left stomachs churning. A number of the same problems of years past cropped up again.

Pathetic coverage of the opposition resulted in some easy goals against. By the end of the Calgary game I was split on whether the players had a low defensive IQ or if it was the systems they were using that were to blame.

I looked forward to the Oilers game, hoping for some answers.

Surprisingly, defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was ruled out of the contest — head coach Paul Maurice said it was a lower-body, soft-tissue injury. Rookie Tucker Poolman drew in for his first game and played well. Backup goalie Connor Hellebuyck got the start, replacing a shell-shocked Steve Mason.

It wasn’t a stellar first period as the Jets gave up 20 shots, but Hellebuyck was strong, stopping them all.

While they coughed up a two-goal lead in the second (with some bad coverage involved) they were mostly good over the final two periods. The Jets I expected when I predicted they’d make the playoffs had returned, at least for a night.

Of course, fans had their own reasons for the improvement in the Jets' play Monday.

With Byfuglien’s absence and the Jets playing a more structured game, it brought out the non-believers.

There are two distinctly different opinions about Byfuglien among fans — those who think the Jets would be better off without him and those who believe the Jets would suffer a lot if they got rid of him.

One knock on him is that he looks lazy at times. I partly attribute that to him being the prototypical good, big player that doesn’t have his feet churning like a smaller player but is still getting the job done.

More importantly, when he’s on his game, he reads the play very well, often already in the right spot before the puck arrives there. Breaking up plays in the neutral zone and trapping pucks to keep the offence alive inside the opponent’s blue line are good things in a defensive way, as well. Make it simple; keep the puck out of your own zone.

Accountability is another area he gets poor marks from the non-believers.

Being the highest-paid player on the team and an assistant captain, they expect him to stand up after a poor game and face the media with answers. He rarely does that; for some, this shows weak leadership. But he really only needs to account for his actions with his teammates and coaches.

Coincidentally, a picture of Byfuglien and Matt Hendricks catching a big fish while wading in water (during Tuesday’s off day for the Jets in Vancouver) showed up on social media.

This, of course, fuelled the leadership debate, with some wondering why he can’t report to work but can be out playing. Maurice was fine with it and I don’t see the problem — the injury can’t be very serious.

Some people seem to believe the injury to Byfuglien wasn't even enough to keep him out of a game — that this is a benching by Maurice for unstructured play.

The perception that Byfuglien is not accountable to the coach when his play strays from the Jets' systems is something many wonder about, so this would be a start.

While that seems a bit of a stretch, I wonder if it's just people trying to throw Maurice some extra love.

When he's in his bad, river-hockey mode, Byfuglien operates far outside the boundaries of team structure, which is frustrating for coaches, teammates and fans alike.

This is when we see bad gambles on his part — followed by something even worse, as he tries to make up for it instead of settling back into the system.

His decisions are at times reckless, leaving teammates out there scrambling to defend. There’s no denying that a number of goals against over the years have occurred because of odd-man rushes or wide-open chances started by poor Byfuglien decisions.

As a player, I’ve had teammates that I’ve really liked off the ice, but strongly disliked their on-ice play at times. You look to your coach to correct their behaviour, but if you’re left to clean up a teammate’s mess it can become an emotional test. You’d never voice your displeasure publicly, though.

Byfuglien’s numbers overall have been good, whether using advanced ones or a general statistic such as points, where he's consistently produced 50-plus per 82 games played.

He tilts the ice in the Jets' favour in significant ways and his ability to crunch the opposition keeps opponents wary of strolling through his territory. When he’s on his best game he's a beast.

Perhaps non-believers would embrace Byfuglien if he got back to where Maurice had him somewhat contained, during the team's one playoff appearance (2014-15).

For me it’s easy, with my eyes seeing a lot more good play than bad from him, matching his numbers, which makes him a definite plus for the Jets.

Although he’s not playing against the Vancouver Canucks, he’ll make things a lot easier by recognizing one thing when he returns.

He doesn’t have to do it all anymore.

 

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

 

 

Read more by Scott Campbell.

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