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Byfuglien as D-man helps Jets overcome injuries

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com

WINNIPEG -- The injuries that threatened to spoil the Winnipeg Jets' 2014-15 season have instead brought a few revelations, lessons and wins along the way.

"You always get better in your most adverse times," Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said.

The Jets have prospered in the six-week span when defensemen Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba each sustained a long-term injury.

Enstrom, the first Winnipeg defenseman to miss significant time, is not expected to return until late January. Since he missed his first game because of a lower-body injury Nov. 25, the Jets are 10-5-4, a mark that was even more impressive before the recent 1-4-0 slide the Jets are on after a 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.

Dustin Byfuglien
Dustin Byfuglien
Right Wing - WPG
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 22
SOG: 128 | +/-: 0
Yet the Jets remain in contention for the franchise's first spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007. They have 47 points and occupy the second of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference.

Along the way, the Jets have learned they had a No. 1 defenseman all along, even if he happened to be playing forward before the injuries began to accumulate.

By the time Dustin Byfuglien slid back to defense Dec. 5, Zach Bogosian (lower body) had joined Enstrom on the injury list. Byfuglien, a defenseman-turned-forward for nearly a year after Maurice replaced Claude Noel in January 2014, has carried the Jets ever since.

"[Byfuglien] seems like he has been all over the place defensively and offensively," Stuart said.

Winnipeg is 7-5-3 since Byfuglien moved back to the blue line, even though Trouba (upper body) missed his first game because of injury Dec. 16. Stuart (lower body) was injured the same night in a fight.

"We found a top-pairing defenseman," Maurice said of Byfuglien, who has four goals and six assists in his 15 games as a defenseman. "You can't get those guys. Nobody gives them up."

Another revelation has been 23-year-old defenseman Ben Chiarot, who had been a somewhat overlooked prospect with St. John's of the American Hockey League. Since the injuries, Chiarot has not only moved into the NHL, he has taken over as Byfuglien's defense partner and safety valve, showing himself to be a capable stay-at-home defenseman able to complement Byfuglien's free-flowing style.

"You've found two guys that change the dynamic of your group," Maurice said. "Our defense is deeper than it was three months ago, and we found that out through injury, so it has been a great thing for us."

Winnipeg also added veteran Jay Harrison in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18. Harrison, who played for Maurice with Carolina and the Toronto Maple Leafs, arrived after Stuart's injury, and his simple style has meshed quickly with Maurice's system.

But the biggest change has been Byfuglien. Often criticized as prone to defensive miscues and for taking too many risks, he has mirrored the transformation Winnipeg has undergone since Maurice's arrival a year ago.

The Jets' 2.82 goals-against average last season ranked 22nd in the NHL. Their 2.37 goals-against average this season is tied for sixth.

Maurice has implemented a system tailored to his players' speed and size while stressing strong puck support, better neutral-zone play, and better reads by all five players on the ice.

"It was a style of game, first and foremost, that the team had played for years," Maurice said of Winnipeg's former system. "It was a certain style of game. [Byfuglien] has a skill set that can put up numbers in that style of game.

"We've changed what we want to be good at as a foundation of our group. We would like to eventually get to a point where you see that more creative offense, but the foundation of our game has to be there first. He said, 'OK,' and realizes that that is the prerequisite for him staying as a defenseman, and he has been great at it.

"[Byfuglien] is learning when to go and when not to go. [It is] almost the first time that there is not always a green light in what he is doing, but that is what offensive defensemen [do], the great ones, they pick the right spots."

Byfuglien has dominated and taken over games. He tormented the Philadelphia Flyers with punishing hits against Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn on Dec. 21. The hits led Philadelphia coach Craig Berube to exchange words with Byfuglien after the game.

In a 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 3, Byfuglien's early hit on Phil Kessel rendered the Maple Leafs star quiet for the remainder of the game. Byfuglien went on to score a goal and had an assist.

"It's just confidence," Byfuglien said after that game. "It's knowing that I can protect the puck and find time and room for someone else to get open, and hopefully they can make it happen afterwards."

Byfuglien was asked if he had ever played better during his NHL career.

"No," Byfuglien said. "Not even close."

Byfuglien has also reduced some of the workload for other Winnipeg defensemen, playing 27 or more minutes in eight of his 14 games since moving back from right wing.

The eye test supports the strength of Byfuglien's play, but possession analytics also bear out his impact. The Jets had a 53.7 Corsi percentage in Byfuglien's first 14 games as a defenseman.

Bogosian returned Thursday, a significant addition with road games against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks this weekend.

Enstrom and Stuart are practicing in full and accompanied the Jets for their road trip through the Pacific Division. Clitsome had back surgery Thursday and will not return any time soon. Trouba could be back in the lineup in February.

"[The injured players] realize we've done a good job holding down the fort and playing some good hockey, so I'm sure they're excited to get into the lineup and be a part of it," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "I think it was something that was said when everybody went down. It was going to make us play a better team game, and I think we've done that since a lot of those guys got hurt."

Maurice eventually will face a different dilemma: The Jets will have a glut of defensemen.

"We've got guys coming back, and there are going to be some fights for jobs soon because some of these guys that have played, have played very well," Maurice said. "We've got some competition now to play on the team. They've earned the opportunity to stay in the lineup."

However, Bogosian, Enstrom and Stuart are major additions into the lineup.

"You forget about what these [injured players] can do," Maurice said after seeing them in practice this week. "When you lose a guy for long enough, it's like a trade [when he returns]."

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