Friday, 25 January 2013

Looking Buff

How about that game tonight? If you caught the nationally televised broadcast of the Pittsburgh Penguins visiting the Winnipeg Jets, you were lucky enough to see two first-period goals by Sidney Crosby. It appeared the Penguins might be on their way to another blowout of Winnipeg, but one player in particular took the bull by the horns and changed the outcome of this game. If Winnipeg defenceman Dustin Byfuglien can continue to put nights like tonight on his resumé, we might be looking at a Norris Trophy candidate in this short season. Byfuglien scored, he added a helper, and he was all over the ice throwing checks and breaking up plays. Crosby may arguably be the best player on the planet at any given time, but Dustin Byfuglien was the difference for the Jets in their 4-2 victory tonight.

It's not often that you can find a 265-pound player that's as agile as a man half his weight. Byfuglien has great hands, great footwork, and he showed several flashes of great jump and agility last night that should make him a dangerous player all season if he can continue with these kinds of effort all season.

Jets head coach Claude Noel made it clear on Wednesday after his team had returned from a two-game roadtrip with three of four possible points that Byfuglien will be needed to be an impact player all season if the Jets want success. Said Noel,
"His conditioning level is good. I think the thing that's important with Byfuglien is it's not so much the minutes but the consistency in his play and I think he’s been fabulous in the way he's played.

"As we all know, Dustin can play that gunslinger type of game that can keep you on the edge of your seat in both ways and I think he's cognizant of that and I think he’s managed his games well, really well. We're reliant on him, I think he recognizes the urgency of wins and I think he recognizes the impact he can have on games. I think he's matured."
If Byfuglien has indeed matured as Noel suggests, it seems to be making him a better all-around player. As we saw when he was with Chicago, he could take over a game with his sheer size alone. He has always had a scoring touch for a big man, and there was never a question about Byfuglien's heart. But like Noel said, it was always a question of consistency for Byfuglien, and it looks like he might be turning that corner.

Byfuglien played a solid game for Winnipeg in Washington, and he seemed to step his game up another notch in the shootout loss to Boston. Of course, Byfuglien was the only goal scorer in the opening game against Ottawa, but there hasn't really been a shift where Byfuglien has decided to glide in the first four games.

Indeed, tonight was proof of that as he was leading rushes, forechecking deep in the Pittsburgh zone before being one of the first men back defensively, and he was crashing and banging all over the place. He doesn't wear a letter on his uniform like Ladd, Stuart, or Jokinen, but he's showing that he's certainly a leader on this team, and he's letting his play speak volumes.

There's a good chance that guys like Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, and Drew Doughty would be favorites for the Norris Trophy at the start of the season. They are consistently some of the better players on NHL bluelines, and there's no denying the impact that they have on games.

However, Byfuglien was second in defenceman scoring last season, ahead of Weber, Chara, and Doughty. Byfuglien also missed significant time last season, playing the least amount of games of any of the top-fifteen defencemen. While his plus/minus wasn't anywhere near the leaders in that category, his -8 rating shows just how important he was in terms of Winnipeg scoring.

It's no different this season for the Jets as it seems that the Jets go as Byfuglien goes. While Byfuglien is still a -2 thus far this season, if he continues playing as he did tonight, his name should be tossed about when it comes to narrowing down the Norris Trophy finalists.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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