Harnessing Byfuglien

Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien calls for a pass during practice in Winnipeg, Man., Sep. 24, 2011....

Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien calls for a pass during practice in Winnipeg, Man., Sep. 24, 2011. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:20 AM ET

WINNIPEG - The question for Charlie Huddy was simple enough: has the assistant coach of the Winnipeg Jets ever worked with someone like Dustin Byfuglien?

The answer was totally unexpected.

“I kind of played with one,” Huddy began. “Coff.”

At that point I almost swallowed my notebook.

“Coff” would be Paul Coffey, one of the all-time greats, and one of Huddy’s teammates with the Edmonton Oilers back in that franchise’s glory days.

Like the good, stay-at-home type he always was, Huddy quickly recovered, providing some solid defence to what seemed like a reckless rush of the mouth.

“I’m not comparing him to him,” Huddy explained. “Just the way he wants to go.”

The way he wants to go. That’s as good a description of Byfuglien’s game as I’ve heard, yet.

He’s the thoroughbred who can’t wait to just go.

Head coach Claude Noel called him a bit of a freelancer a while back.

Rover

Huddy also used the term rover.

How about this one: Norris Trophy contender.

There isn’t a more intriguing player on the Jets roster than Byfuglien. Nor is there a more dynamic one.

Andrew Ladd may be the captain, Evander Kane the rising star, but I’m betting Byfuglien is already the fan favourite going into the season opener against the Habs, here, Sunday.

The popularity of a quarterback, you might say. With the body of a defensive lineman.

The 6-foot-5 Minnesotan could have easily turned himself into a 300-pounder working the trenches.

The truth is there were people who saw his size and athletic ability as a kid and tried to steer him into football.

“I tried for a bit,” Byfuglien said. “Couple times. Seventh and eighth grade. I did fine.”

Two things kept bringing him back to the rink, though.

One, he fell in love with hockey.

And it didn’t interfere with his other love.

“I like the hunting season better than the other sports,” Byfuglien said. “Duck hunting started early, before hockey season and in football season. Spring came around and then fishing started.”

That leaves winter, and few do it like this guy.

“It’s amazing the way he can skate,” Huddy said. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a guy that big skate the way he can skate.”

It’s safe to say there’s never been a 270-pounder who scored 20 goals from the blue line, as Byfuglien did last season.

Which brings us back to the Norris.

You have to go back 12 years to find a Norris Trophy winner who scored as many as 20 goals.

“The offensive ability is there,” Huddy said. “You can’t take that away from the guy. He can shoot the puck a ton. He’s able to score from the blue line. Not many guys can score from out there. But when you look at that trophy, it’s about being able to play in both ends and being a leader. He’s got that in his game. He just has to get it into his head now.

“From what I’ve seen in practice, man, he works hard and he wants to win. I like everything he brings. We’ll get a little bit more structure to him in our end, and we’ll go from there.”

Damn the torpedoes

Byfuglien’s a bit like the quarterback who just wants to take off with the ball all the time. Give him the puck and a hole, and he’s off, damn the torpedoes — and the defence.

Talk to former opponents about him, and they’ll admit they feared him less as a policeman in his own zone than as an attacker sneaking in from the point.

“That’s when he’s most dangerous,” former Bruin Blake Wheeler said. “He dictates the play out there.”

But can he learn to hold back and take care of the dirty business the way he lugs or blasts the puck?

That’s what he’ll have to do if he wants to be in the Norris conversation.

And, for the record, he’d love to be.

“Every defenceman would like to be up there and go for it,” Byfuglien said. “But that’s a long shot.”

Exactly.


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