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Buff's Big Game

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG – How good was Dustin Byfuglien in Saturday’s blowout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs?

“He was the best player on the ice.”

The 29-year-old blueliner had a goal and an assist, three hits, five shots and a team-high +4 rating in nearly 24 minutes of ice time in the nationally televised 5-1 rout.

Simply put, it was a dominating display.

Byfuglien was put back on defence in December after injuries decimated the Jets blue line. Zach Bogosian, Toby Enstrom and Mark Stuart are all on injured reserved with long-term lower-body injuries, while Jacob Trouba is also on IR with an injury of the upper-body variety.

“Dustin always wanted to play defence,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said, “so when the opportunity came because we needed him to, we said, ‘Listen, we know this is something you want to do. So here’s the opportunity for you to do it. These are the things we value.’

“He said, ‘OK,’ and that was pretty much it.”

Byfuglien, who has nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points in 39 games this season, has been a force in his new role. While Maurice considers the offensive production a bonus, the biggest impact – aside from the dominating physical presence he’s long been known for – has come as a result of the “simple” structure his overall game has taken on this season.

“We have a really simple system that we like to think as the weeks go by, it becomes more clearly defined,” Maurice said. “He’s comfortable letting his skill-set come out when the opportunity presents itself. But for me, it’s always about confidence.

“I’m not comparing Dustin to the guys I’m going to mention, but… Hall of Fame defenceman Ray Bourque could play huge minutes on such a simple game. More recently, Nick Lidstrom was a prime example of that. Eighty to 90 percent of the game you didn’t really notice him on the ice, except he was on the ice the entire time. He made the first, simplest pass and he was positioned perfectly defensively. He had a huge, huge impact on the game.

“There’s a great amount of confidence that comes in playing a simple game.”

Ignoring the flash, dash and punishing physical play, structure and sound positioning led to the forward-turned-defenceman’s biggest victory last night against the Leafs:

Toronto’s top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov was silenced. And according to Maurice, the defensive side is most critical for Byfuglien and the Jets.

Still marvelling at the big man’s craft, Jets winger Blake Wheeler offered his take:

“He wants to stay on defence,” he laughed. “He’s playing really inspiring hockey right now. He’s taking it upon himself to be the leader back there on D. He’s been really responsible at both ends and has been really tough to play against.

“It’s been huge for us.”

Added captain Andrew Ladd: “His hockey sense and the way he reads plays is extraordinary. Defensively, he’s so strong and so patient with the puck in our own end.”

-- Ryan Dittrick,

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