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Maurice: Jets to keep Byfuglien at wing -- for now

by Brian Compton

For those expecting new Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice to make a decision on whether to play Dustin Byfuglien at forward or defense in the near future, you may be waiting for a while.

One of Claude Noel's last moves before being removed as coach Sunday was moving Byfuglien from the blue line to forward alongside Olli Jokinen and Devin Setoguchi. Byfuglien responded with two assists Monday night, helping Maurice win his debut in a 5-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes at MTS Centre.

Maurice ran his first practice as Jets coach Tuesday morning, and afterward told reporters he will keep Byfuglien at right wing for the time being. He was then asked if there was a timetable as to how long the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder would stay there.

"Right when I need to … and not before," Maurice said. "At the end of the day, if I've got a guy that I feel can play on the back end and up front, then that's best-case scenario, that there would be a game that we can throw him back there halfway through and you'd say, 'That's tough to do.' That's part of what makes this a potentially great thing, instead of a negative. Can you imagine having a guy that big that can move like that, with hands like that, with some of his creative instincts, that you can drop on the back on the blue line and put him up?

"I'm going to leave him there until I don't see something or see something that I need to change. That may be next week, that may be next month, it may be never. But I'm not making a decision until I need to."

Byfuglien, 28, ranks third among NHL defensemen with 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists). He did see time playing the point on the power play Monday, something that is likely to continue. But at even strength, Maurice's plan for the time being is to keep Byfuglien at forward, where the latter did see playing time during his days with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was traded to the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise after helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010.

"I've got a pretty good handle on what he's capable of doing," Maurice said. "I think you saw that. I think there's too much focus on him, to be quite honest with you. Far too much.

"Take it from my perspective … look at the game [Monday] night. He did some spectacular things. Having the ability to do what he did up front, and then be such a threat on the power play is highly unique. But I did notice in the third period, he got to the offensive line and he wasn't able to get a puck deep. It just bunched on him, and I heard it in the crowd. I heard them upset with that fact. That exact element happened 50 times in that game. There's some good players on Phoenix too. He's a pretty darn good player."

Maurice will coach his second game behind Winnipeg's bench Thursday, when the Jets visit the Calgary Flames. Still in the Central Division basement, the ultimate goal for Maurice is for the team to improve as a whole. If the uber-skilled Byfuglien continues to contribute, Maurice believes it could expedite the process.

"We've got to talk about getting better, not bemoaning where we've been or what we've got before," Maurice said. "We are a far better hockey team with Dustin Byfuglien, at forward or at D, playing close to his capabilities, we're a better team. That's my goal."


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