Last night, Mark Scheifele took over the game story in Winnipeg’s first NHL game on home ice in more than 15 years. The team’s first overall pick from the draft had two goals and two assists in his debut in front of a roaring crowd in Winnipeg.
However, something from Scheifele’s first goal, a rebound on a shot from the point, led me in a direction worth talking about. The shot came from Big Dustin Byfuglien, one of many he has taken in his NHL career. Over the course of the season, I expect Winnipeg to score many goals like this at both even strength and the powerplay, a play created by a long Byfuglien shot.
Dustin Byfuglien is an odd specimen for an NHL defenseman—No player from his position takes more of his team’s shots than Big Buff does when he’s on the ice. For every 17 and a half minutes (average for a top pairing defenseman) on the ice, Byfuglien took 2.64 shots last season, well above second-placed Cody Franson’s 1.99.
Byfuglien also took 23.6% of the shots his team took when he was on the ice, this time a difference Nashville defenseman, Shea Weber, was second to him at 20.9%. It’s not even like he jumps up into the rush, either. His average shot distance last season was 50.1 feet, a little closer to the net than the average defenseman, but further back than Alex Pietrangelo, Kristopher Letang or Brent Burns, a few other high-profile offensive rearguards. When he was a forward in Chicago, even when he had the benefit of standing close to the net on powerplays, he shot from a well out 35 feet. He bulks his shots, preferring to play the role of the trailer than the advancer.
The man has had an erratic summer, and I don’t necessarily want to get into that, but what’s more erratic is his play on the ice. Byfuglien is a plus-Corsi player, which generally means that the puck was more often in the opposition’s end than his own when he was on the ice. But he is a “high-events” player, in that, when Byfuglien is on the ice, there are a lot of shots at either end, period. He’s less likely to be hemmed in his own end, but when he’s stuck in his own end, he is liable to give up a lot of shots because his offensive instincts are generally more tuned.
What we are looking at is a defenseman who doesn’t only hoard his teammates shots, but a defenseman who looks to create shots. Generally there is little evidence to suggest that defensemen are the ones who can drive the play forward, but Byfuglien appears to be an exception to this rule.
I don’t think that Winnipeg’s fortunes hinge on Byfuglien. I think his contract is a little bloated because of his inability to play in the offensive zone. He doesn’t have the two-way ability that many high-salary blueliners have. Buff, however, does play a type of game that no other defenseman exhibits, and he should be as fun to watch as he is frustrating at times.