BUFFALO - Let the record show that Claude Noel isn’t planning to move Dustin Byfuglien from defence to forward at this stage of the game.
In fact, if all goes according to plan, Noel won’t ever move Byfuglien back up front.
The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets spent a good chunk of Monday’s meeting with the media defending the play of Byfuglien, who has been subject to plenty of criticism in the early stages of the season for his limited production and routinely getting caught up ice and out of position.
“He likes playing defence and I don’t think he sees himself as a forward,” said Noel. “If you want to go down that road, that’s an area I’m not prepared to go right now. We’ll keep him playing defence. There are some things he can give us back there. Right now, I’m not entertaining the thought of moving him up front.”
Byfuglien was at the rink for Monday’s optional skate, but didn’t go on the ice and wasn’t around to speak with reporters by the time the room was opened up for interviews.
Byfuglien seems to be frustrated by his play and it’s clear he’s trying to work through it.
But it’s a process that takes time, Noel stressed.
“Dustin plays a certain way that he’s played for some time,” said Noel. “In there, you throw in the mix that he was a forward for a while. His play is OK. He’s another guy that wants to learn, get better and improve. He enjoys playing defence.
“I understand the criticism, to a degree but you don’t change your game overnight. It’s a longer process and we have to be more realistic with him. The reason I say that is that it’s hard to change your game that drastically when you’re a little bit older. He’s made some changes for us and we’re continually trying to adjust some things. There are some decisions we’d like to take back but that’s part of the process and we understand that. You have to look at the big picture here.”
The big picture — in the eyes of Noel — shows that Byfuglien is only in his second full season on defence and is taking the necessary steps to work at refining his game.
The Roseau, Minn. product led all defencemen with 20 goals and had 53 points last season, but his production dipped considerably in the second half. So far this season, he’s been limited to one goal and five points in 14 games.
Roaming and joining the rush is always going to be part of Byfuglien’s game, but when you’re not producing as much offence, it’s a little bit tougher to put up with the defensive deficiencies.
However, there’s a fine line between trying to get a player like Byfuglien to conform to the system while not giving up his ability to be a serious difference-maker.
“He plays a different game and his mentality is different,” said Noel. “He’s an attack defenceman, not a receive defenceman. There lies what we’re trying to change a little bit. That’s how he thinks. (Sergei) Zubov and (Marek) Zidlicky, these guys were a different breed of defenceman but they were pretty good. It just takes some time to shape them.
“You’ve got to be careful, I’ve done this before as a young coach, when you try to shape a guy to be more defensive than anything and then you completely lose what he does do well. (Byfuglien) can really help you. I’ve seen him play the high-risk game. When you try to change people this is what happens, you get caught in the middle and the reads aren’t as free-spirited as they normally are and you’re not getting the rewards.”
The Jets are back in action Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres and at home Thursday against the Florida Panthers.