Dustin Byfuglien is a beast. Don't believe me? Ask Roberto Luongo. If there are two things that would give the Vancouver Canucks netminder nightmares when he sleeps, it is the sound of the Chelsea Dagger and the thought of Big Buff sitting in front of his crease. Actually, there might be three, with the third being getting booed and jeered by the Canucks fan base every single night. But I digress. Watching Buff absolutely decimate the competition with 11 goals in 22 games during the Chicago Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup in 2009 was a sight to behold, as he was an unstoppable force when he was put up front to reek havoc in the crease. I remember this quite vividly, as Big Buff was a Canucks killer, and I cursed his name nightly.
Fast forward to later that summer, and the Hawks had to purge their championship team due to the cap. Big Buff ends up as one of the casualties, as he is sent down to Atlanta to join the Thrashers. Coming off of such a fantastic playoff run, he had to continue putting up big numbers on the right-wing down in Georgia, right? Wrong. They instead put him back to defense, which I must admit is his initial and preferred position, but in doing so ignored the entire playoff run from the previous season where he developed into a feared and virtually unstoppable force. Brilliant.
The experiment seemed to work like a charm, as Byfuglien led the league in goals from a defenseman with 20 last season, and finished the year with 53 points from the back end. Fantastic numbers to be sure. However, if you dig a little deeper you will see that in the last 40 games in Atlanta Thrasher's history, Buff tallied a grand total of 5 goals and 8 assists. The first 41 games? 15 goals, 25 assists. It was very easy to see how the Thrash were division leaders and appeared playoff bound halfway through the season, as one of their d-men was a point-per-game player. At the peak of this hot streak, Buff signed a 5-year deal worth $26 million, an annual cap-hit of $5.2 million.
But then the team began their swan dive to end the year, and it coincided with Buff's struggles in the second half of the year. The question I have is which one caused the other? In my humble opinion, it sure looked like teams around the league figured out how to handle Byfuglien on his offensive forays. And if the Thrasher's record to end their season was any indication, shutting Buff down equaled shutting down the Thrashers.
Fast forward to today, and the Atlanta Thrashers are gone and the Winnipeg Jets have returned. However, this is largely the Thrashers lineup from last season, and the Jets have come out of the gate in much the same way this team finished last season in Georgia. The Jets spend $23 million on their eight defenseman (Buff, Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart, Johnny Oduya, Randy Jones and Derek Meech), yet they are terrible defensively. Unfortunately for the team, Buff not only makes the most money but he has been the weakest defensively of them all (with a close second going to Johnny "Mr. Giveaway" Oduya".)
What is my proof? Well, I am not well versed with the advanced statistics and sabermetrics that Hawerchuk and Bettman's Nightmare are, so I don't have any other stats to give you other than this: 6 games, -5 rating. However, I have watched every game so far, and when I see odd-man rushes against the Jets they are usually because Dustin Byfuglien is caught up ice after ending up behind the opponent's icing line. Buff and his roving ways make Mike Green look like Adam Foote in all of his stay-at-home glory. That is a scary thought.
If that is a scary thought, then imagine seeing the only guy on the Jets roster slower then Buff, Nik Antropov, skating backwards defending a 3-on-2 because Buff is again caught up ice. I saw this happen again last night. It is as terrifying as it sounds. In his own zone, I have two glaring examples of his play that led to easy goals against. Last night Buff just stood there and watched as Jason Spezza roofed the eventual game winner, and in Phoenix his brutal turnover behind the net 30 seconds into the game set the tone of that stinker.
It is apparent that Buff wants to get up in the play. He helped provide the screen on Tobias Enstrom's PP goal against the Maple Leafs the other night. When Mark Scheifele buried his first goal off of a Buff rebound, the big guy was already behind the goal line. So why not let him be up in the play? Why make him skate all the way back into his end so he can pretend to play defense?
Put him on a wing opposite of Evander Kane and let them go crazy. Let him and Andrew Ladd pound away on the opposition along the boards. Heck, let him and Kyle Wellwood "feast" on the other team's young players (ba dum ching). Seriously though, we have Randy Jones on a one-way deal worth $1.15 million sitting the press box. Between him and Derek Meech, we have decent 6th and 7th guys. What we don't have is a huge body up front to torment the opposition goalies.
I am not alone in this thinking. TSN 1290 radio here in Winnipeg has been flooded with non-stop calls with fans wanting Claude Noel to make this move, as do many local message boards. I've spent many lunch breaks talking about this in the staff room. When Buff is down low we are able to sustain pressure, it's as simple as that, but why bother with this charade of him getting back to play D? Unfortunately, I don't know if it will ever happen, especially after Noel gives this humdinger of a quote after the Senators loss (quote from the Ottawa Citizen):
"Byfuglien is a really special player, we don’t mind him roving if it’s a controlled rove"
Yikes. A controlled rove. Now I've heard it all. How about instead of allowing him to "rove in a controlled manner", put him on the right wing so be can dominate down low in a controlled manner? We have other guys who can play defense just as poorly as Byfuglien who make less money and don't have the offensive capabilities that he has. Let them go back and get the puck instead while Buff gets ready to mount another attack on another goaltender Luongo-style.
Hey, with a record of 1-4-1, it couldn't hurt to try. Could it?