A couple of items have dominated the headlines for Jets fans over the summer, and those are the contract extensions of two faces of this franchise; Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. There has been much talk on the Ladd subject and it appears a deal will be done. Byfuglien is another story completely, as is accustomed with big number 33 there has been no talk, and not a word from the player himself. It appears right now that the season may start and Byfuglien may still be without a contract, and if that happens, don’t be surprised to see the big man back at forward.
A Man of Many Talents
Byfuglien has achieved success both as a forward and defense man throughout his NHL career. He won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks as a forward, but when he was traded, he went back to play on the blue line. Over his time in Winnipeg Byfuglien has played both, often in the same game, he really is a one of a kind talent in the NHL today. Byfuglien is one of the biggest guys in the NHL, both in height and weight, and he plays like it. Beside the tendency to crush opposing players with punishing body checks, he also brings speed to the table that nearly no one else his size has. Combined with a great shot and some impressive skill with the puck, Dustin Byfuglien is a player that has no comparison point.
Despite his obvious skill offensively, Byfuglien much prefers playing the back-end, and has not been shy about making that known. At times it has felt like the Jets keep the big man on D to keep him happy, but if Winnipeg starts getting a hint that Byfuglien may not be re-signing, why keep him happy? The best chance to re-sign Byfuglien is keeping him on the back-end. It is where he likes playing and would most likely choose a future that has him patrolling the blue line. If his future is not in Winnipeg, the Jets can think less about what the big man wants and more about what may be best for the team.
Crowded Blue Line
Making the situation even more complicated is the fact that the Jets are so deep on the back-end right now. A simple glance at the Jets roster on their own website shows far too many blue liners competing for too few jobs. The Jets currently show 11 defense men under contract to the big club. That is not including top prospects like Josh Morrissey and Brendan Kichton who are looking to make the jump to the big squad. While the Jets are stacked on the back-end, they are still lacking skill up front. They look to Nikolaj Ehlers to fill a top six forward role, but if he is unable to perform there, the Jets may find themselves in a bind. Byfuglien may be able to help there, and playing in a contract year, Byfuglien should be motivated. Winnipeg also has holes in their bottom six, so Byfuglien has the ability to fill many holes.
Due to his play in the second half of last season many people probably forget that this was the plan last year. Byfuglien started last season playing forward on the third line and that was the long-term plan for Paul Maurice and his coaching staff. Had it not been for the Jets losing the majority of the defensive core at the same time, Buff probably would have spent last year up front. However, with all the injuries, Byfuglien stepped back to play defense and really kept the team afloat during a really rough patch. When five main defense men were out the team could have really sunk, Byfuglien stepping back to the blue line was a large reason they didn’t.
The biggest question for Winnipeg is where do they get the most value from Byfuglien. Most would lean-to the side saying he is better on defense, however, there are still many question marks. Though he did show last season he has the ability to be a top pairing D-man, he has also shown many inconsistencies. Bad decision-making often leads to the big man getting caught, and often his partner has to cover for him. As a forward, there is less chance of a Byfuglien mistake costing his team, but at least by recent examples, he does not produce as much from the front end. The Jets are flooded with defensive skill however, and using Byfuglien to fill a hole up front may be the best option for this team.
Born and raised Winnipeg sports fan and contributor with The Hockey Writers.