It is a deeply enjoyable coincidence that I am assigned this player preview. I might be Byfuglien’s biggest fan when he plays defence, and was a staunch defender during the ‘Mystery Turnovers’ days. At the same time, his transition play as a forward is slow and haphazard and his defensive work from the forward position was hard to watch last season. He’s a star player and difference maker for this club, and the question on everyone’s mind is whether he’ll be in a position to succeed.
Chicago knew the score when their cap crunch hit, and Byfuglien was moved as an expendable piece. His rover style on defence didn’t fit their system and his play up front was too limited to consider moving other talent to make room for him. Their loss was Atlanta’s gain and his move to full-time defence paid huge dividends for the franchise.
With the Jets, he’s been a tough minutes, big-minutes defender who accounts for 2/5ths of the goals from the blue line and plays in all three disciplines. He’s a big, mobile, physical defender who handles the puck extremely well. What will he be on a team that increasingly needs him at every position?
There are a lot of variables for Byfuglien, all the way up to whether he remains with the Jets come deadline day. I suspect he keeps his position on the top PP and spends more of the season playing defence than forward thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. It’s going to be a very long year for the Jets in the impressive Central, and his defence (and offence!) as a winger is not going to cut it. They need someone who can manage David Backes, Marian Hossa, Jamie Benn, and Jarome Iginla.
It can go a lot of different ways – Byfuglien could get moved back after Bogosian’s first injury, he could have an ineffective season and be traded at the draft, or the whole thing could implode with Kane and Byfuglien leaving town for want of a defensively capable winger in the bottom-9. So for this expectation, I’m betting on a full season with the Jets and more offensive looks as a blue liner than as a forward.
1. What position will he play?
Paul Maurice has been clear about his preference for Byfuglien in a hybrid role. At evens to end the year, Buf played forward, but he moved back to defence for both the powerplay and the penalty kill. What’s more, he played both wings with an assortment of linemates and was less than consistently effective. With the Jets thin on defence and out-gunned in the Central, will Byfuglien spend the whole season as a third line winger at even strength? Or will he be back to playing 25 minutes a night as the team’s top defender?
2. What happened last year?
His -20 last year was ugly, and though a bad coach put him at forward, a somewhat better coach kept him there. The fan base was livid, the news media were sharpening their narrative-harpoons of ‘effort’ and ‘compete level’, and the goalie started throwing blame around the locker room. Like self-levelling concrete, the consensus eventually settled in the lowest spot and hardened around the unquantifiable ‘bad turnovers.’ In aggregate, he was the team’s top-possession and top-scoring defender against the toughest competition, but he was also dealing with the worst on-ice save percentage of any regular on the team (at .888). Gary Lawless went on the air before a game against the Wild to announce that the problem with Dustin Byfuglien was that he wasn’t as good as Ryan Suter, and I offered my system insight into why that was absurd here. The truth is that he’s a star player who hit some bad luck for half a season. He’s unorthodox and the team was very poorly coached, so his rover style was identified as a problem rather than as a stopgap against much bigger issues created by the team structure. Listen to the verbal on Drew Doughty and Dustin Byfuglien and you’ll discover that roving is good when you win, bad when you lose.
3. How much will he score?
One of the things we forget and the TSN crew is loathe to discuss is that Dustin Byfuglien is the 5th highest scoring defenceman in the league over the last 5 years. He has as many points as Shea Weber during his tenure as a defender (224) in 15 fewer games. Looking back at his days as a forward, Byfuglien was a 30+ point, 3rd line pest. He’s scored over 50 points in each of his seasons as a defender (or on pace for over 50). A full third of the points by defenders came from Byfuglien alone last year – a fairly typical proportion for the big man. The truth about this team is that sheltering Byfuglien won’t fix Pavelec, but it could mean a drop for last year’s 15th ranked offence.