On any NHL defensive core, Dustin Byfuglien should be a top-pairing defenseman. On the Winnipeg Jets, it is a requirement. The Jets’ blue-liner has experienced some highs and lows in his third season with the team, and although he is doing great on the score-sheet, his game isn’t quite complete.
It is no secret the advantages that Byfuglien possesses when he is on the ice. The 28-year old has one of the hardest shots in the National Hockey League, and is a killer on the Jets’ rebounding power-play unit. Aside from his offense, he can deliver game-changing hits with his massive 6’5″, 265 pound frame. Byfuglien is third in points among defensemen, trailing only Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Chicago’s Duncan Keith, who have both won a Norris Trophy in recent years.
Take Byfuglien out of the offensive zone, and put him under pressure in his own end, however, and the ugly side of Byfuglien’s game rears it’s head. Byfuglien is ranked second worst in defenseman’s plus-minus, with an ice-cold rating of -16. Byfuglien also has 54 PIMs this season, the highest total by any Winnipeg Jet, a stat that also ranks in the top 10 league-wide for defencemen.
Watching Byfuglien live, it is easy to see why. Passes are almost telegraphed before they happen, leading to turnovers, odd-man rushes, and often, goals against. For a big man, Byfuglien has blocked 70 shots this season, ranking him just inside the top 50 (T-48th). Chris Butler of the Calgary Flames, (who plays 6 minutes per game less than Byfuglien) has 111.
One of the Minnesota native’s worst games of the season came on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Byfuglien finished with 0 points and a -3 rating. One giveaway at the blue-line led to an Evgeni Malkin goal, and one period later, a weak pass in the neutral zone was easily intercepted by the speedy Pens, and ended up in the back of Winnipeg’s net. Jets’ Head Coach Claude Noel (who is under fire himself) had this to say about Byfuglien after the game:
“Dustin knows where he’s at with his game… We need him to be better… He’s trying. He’s not happy”
Byfuglien will have to be better before the Jets see any end to their losing streak that has now reached four games. Any player who is on the ice for almost half of the game needs to be one of the best players on either team. His defensive liability was the main reason he was left off Team USA’s Olympic roster, and it could easily lead to the Jets’ demise this season.
Byfuglien’s improvement will need to start with the forwards. Byfuglien needs time to focus on his own end of the ice, but he won’t be able to do that if he is the one expected to bring the Jets a key goal. Relying on a defenseman to produce offense is bad news, but if Byfuglien only has to complement the offense put up by the top lines, that quickly turns in to a best case scenario.
Byfuglien still has a few days off to refine his craft, before the Jets take on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night.
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